After squandering an opportunity to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Carolina Panthers want to make sure they at least finish No. 1 in their division.
Either getting to rest during the first week of the playoffs or having to spend it playing on the road is what’s at stake Sunday for the Panthers, who seek their first NFC South title in four years as they visit Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
Carolina (11-4) entered its Week 16 matchup with the New York Giants having won seven of eight games, and was assured a postseason berth with Dallas’ loss to Baltimore last Saturday night.
It was poised to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last Sunday, leading for most of its game with the defending Super Bowl champions, but lost 34-28 in overtime to hand the conference’s No. 1 seed to the Giants.
“Disappointing would be putting it mildly,” Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “The road to the Super Bowl goes through New York. We had a chance. We didn’t get it done. We’ve got to get back to work and get ready for New Orleans.”
Carolina can secure its first NFC South title since 2003, when it reached the Super Bowl for the only time in the franchise’s 14-year history, if it beats New Orleans (8-7) or if Atlanta falls to St. Louis. However, if the Panthers lose and the Falcons win, Carolina would miss out on a first-round bye and have to open the playoffs on the road next week in Arizona.
“It would be just awful not to get that first-round bye,” Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason said. “I think we owe it to ourselves to finish off what we have done this season.”
As Carolina tries to make sure it wraps up the regular season with the No. 2 seed, it will try to bounce back from its worst defensive performance of the season and prevent Brees from making NFL history.
The three-time Pro-Bowler needs 402 passing yards - a total he’s surpassed twice this season - to break Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 set in 1984. But Brees said personal accolades come second behind assuring his team is victorious on Sunday.
“I think we’re going do what it takes to win, first and foremost,” Brees said. “I’m trying not to think about it as much as possible.”
Brees’ and coach Sean Payton’s focus is instead on helping New Orleans (8-7) finish with a winning record for just the third time in eight years, even though it will miss the playoffs for a second straight season.
“Certainly, a milestone like the record we’re talking about is significant, but nonetheless what’s most important to our team, to Drew Brees, to the organization, is winning this football game and finishing 9-7,” Payton said Monday.
Brees already has set career highs with a league-best 4,638 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes, second in the NFL to San Diego’s Philip Rivers. In last Sunday’s 42-7 victory at winless Detroit, the Saints amassed a season-high 532 total yards as Brees finished 30-for-40 for 351 yards and two touchdowns.
The only game this season in which Brees did not throw a touchdown pass was against Carolina on Oct. 19, when he was 21-of-39 for 231 yards with an interception in a 30-7 road loss. He’s had no more than 260 yards passing in his last three starts versus the Panthers.
New Orleans has lost nine of 12 versus Carolina, including six straight at home since 2001, but the Saints are 6-1 at the Superdome this season. Six of Brees’ nine passing performances of at least 300 yards have come at home, where he’s totaled 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Panthers haven’t let an opposing quarterback throw for 300 yards in seven straight games, but it was the run that did in their defense last week. They gave up 301 rushing yards to the Giants and surrendered a season-high 459 yards overall.
It didn’t help that Carolina’s defense was missing two defensive tackles. Maake Kemoeatu was sidelined by a sprained ankle, and Damione Lewis left in the fourth quarter with a bad shoulder. While Lewis is doubtful for this game and Kemoeatu is questionable, the Panthers lost another player at that position Tuesday when they placed Gary Gibson (hand) on injured reserve.
“You can’t redo everything you’ve done all season,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “You can’t reinvent the wheel in a week. It doesn’t necessarily change so much what you do, as much as training guys to do what you do.”
Fox’s team now faces the top-ranked offense in the league. The Saints average 415.1 yards and 28.8 points per game.
Defensively, New Orleans has held three of its last four opponents to 255 yards or fewer. However, the Saints gave up more than 100 yards rushing for the 10th time this season last Sunday, and will be facing arguably the league’s hottest rushing attack.
Carolina has run for at least 128 yards in seven straight games, gaining an average of 184.6 in that span. DeAngelo Williams ran for 108 yards versus the Giants and had his second four-touchdown game in four weeks. He’s rushed for 923 yards and 16 TDs over his last eight games.