The NFC South hasn’t panned out the way many thought it would at the start of the season.
The Panthers were expected by many preseason publications to contend for the Super Bowl this season. However, they were mathematically eliminated from the NFC playoff race following Saturday’s win by the New York Giants over the Washington Redskins.
The Saints, on the other hand, have rebounded nicely from a 3-13 record last season, when they were forced to play all of their games away from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. Their 30-7 win over the Giants last weekend, coupled with Dallas’ loss to Philadelphia on Monday, clinched the first postseason bye in franchise history.
“This is the first time I’ve been in this position,” first-year Saints coach Sean Payton said on Tuesday. “Not just as a head coach, but period.”
Carolina kept itself in the postseason hunt heading into Week 17 with a 10-3 win over Atlanta on Sunday that snapped a four-game losing streak. Quarterback Chris Weinke made his third straight start in place of Jake Delhomme, who has not played since injuring his throwing hand in a loss at Philadelphia on Dec. 4.
Weinke has struggled in place of Delhomme, throwing two touchdown passes and four interceptions. However, the Panthers ran the ball a team-record 52 times for 183 yards last week, while Weinke threw for 32 yards on 4-of-7 passing as the team bounced back from an embarrassing 37-3 home loss to Pittsburgh.
DeShaun Foster rushed for 102 yards on 28 carries, while DeAngelo Williams added 82 yards on 21 carries while often taking direct snaps from center. Carolina had rushed for only 88 yards combined in its previous two games.
“That was our emphasis all week,” said Weinke, who won for just the second time as a starter in his career and ended a personal 17-game losing streak.
The Panthers might not have to rely so much on the run this week. Delhomme, who served as a backup in New Orleans before signing with Carolina prior to the 2003 season, practiced Wednesday for the first time since suffering the injury and hopes to return for the regular-season finale.
“It’s real good to get your starting quarterback back,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “With his leadership and what he means for this team, it’s important to have him back.”
However, Delhomme wasn’t exactly stellar this season when he was playing. He has 15 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of only 79.4, and has thrown fourth-quarter interceptions to hurt Carolina’s chances in multiple losses.
Delhomme’s last pass was an interception in the end zone with 25 seconds left in the loss to Philadelphia.
“Each week, honestly, has been pretty tough,” Delhomme said of his time on the sidelines. “To go out there and actually do something was fun. I enjoyed it.”
The Saints, meanwhile, have won four of five and preparing for their first playoff trip since 2000, and just the seventh postseason appearance in club history. With the bye week already wrapped up, Payton could elect to limit the playing time of some of his key players Sunday.
“You can make an argument that it’s no different from the fourth preseason game,” he said.
The Saints lead the NFL with 397.8 yards of offense and 284.5 passing yards per game. Rookie running back Reggie Bush ran for a career-best 126 yards and a touchdown Sunday, while Deuce McAllister had 108 yards rushing and a TD and the defense limited New York to six first downs and 142 total yards.
Carolina has won six of the last eight meeting between the teams, including a 21-18 victory at home on Oct. 1. Delhomme threw for two touchdowns and Foster rushed for 105 yards and a score, while New Orleans rookie receiver Marques Colston had 132 receiving yards and a touchdown.