When the Carolina Panthers met the New Orleans Saints a couple weeks ago, nothing went right for the Panthers.
The Saints dismantled them in a 31-13 win. Carolina's chances of winning the NFC South seemed to slip away that night. Then the Rams blew out the Saints last week, and the Panthers were right back in the hunt.
They'll need to beat the Saints to keep their hopes of winning the division alive. A Saints win clinches the title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
So what can the Panthers do to flip that result from the first meeting? Well, the first step is waking up in Charlotte instead of New Orleans on Sunday.
The Saints' home-road splits are amazing. They are 7-0 at home, just about unbeatable with their crowd bothering the opposing offense and letting Drew Brees change plays at the line of scrimmage. On the road, New Orleans is 3-4 with losses to losing teams like the Jets and Rams.
Carolina is 6-1 at home, the only loss coming in Week 1 against the Seahawks, unquestionably the best team in the NFL this season. The Panthers lost that game 12-7 after DeAngelo Williams fumbled inside the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Carolina won't win by simply showing up on their home turf. They did not match up well against the Saints' passing game in the first meeting, allowing Drew Brees to throw for 313 yards and four touchdowns. Carolina's secondary is the weakest part of its defense, and Marques Colston was able to beat it for nine catches and 125 yards. If the Saints can pass the ball like that again, it won't matter where the game is held.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton needs to be better, too. The Panthers didn't have a pass play of longer than 17 yards at New Orleans. Newton had just 160 yards on 34 attempts. That won't beat the Saints.
The Panthers take control of the South with a win. If they win Sunday, a Panthers win at Atlanta in Week 17 or a Saints loss against Tampa Bay wraps up the division crown and a first-round bye. To put themselves in that position, they'll have to play the Saints much tougher than they did two weeks ago. Not having to play in the Superdome gives them a chance to do that.
Here are the other NFL games this week, from best to worst (all times Eastern, all games Sunday unless noted otherwise):
2. New England at Baltimore, 4:25 p.m.: There is a lot on the line here. The Patriots are in danger of falling to the No. 3 seed with a loss. The Ravens likely need a win to stay alive for the AFC North title, and perhaps for their playoff lives considering how well the Dolphins are playing.
3. Arizona at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.: This will be a tough game. For the Cardinals, it's a playoff game. They'll throw everything they have at Seattle, who still has a two-game lead over everyone in the NFC.
4. Indianapolis at Kansas City, 1 p.m.: This is a likely playoff preview, though a rematch would take place in Indianapolis. The Chiefs' offense has come alive the past few weeks. The Colts need to maintain some momentum from last week's win over Houston.
5. Chicago at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.: This is an interesting game, but a great subplot comes about if the Cowboys win in an early game. That would mean the Eagles have nothing to play for and probably should rest starters for a Week 17 game at Dallas that would decide the NFC East title. The Lions, who need Chicago to lose one of their final two, would be thrilled if the Bears faced Philly's backups.
6. Pittsburgh at Green Bay, 4:25 p.m.: Like last week, this game goes way up the list if Aaron Rodgers returns. As it is, the story of the Packers trying to stay alive while Rodgers is out with a broken collarbone has been pretty interesting.
7. Miami at Buffalo, 1 p.m.: The Dolphins have been in a lot of stressful games lately. And this isn't the easiest road trip to make. And Bills quarterback Thad Lewis getting the start for Buffalo isn't necessarily a good thing for the Dolphins, who lost 23-21 to the Bills when Lewis started earlier this year.
8. Minnesota at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.: The Bengals can clinch the division title with a win and a Ravens loss. They desperately need to bounce back from last week's loss to Pittsburgh.
9. Atlanta at San Francisco, 8:40 p.m. (Monday): The game itself isn't that interesting, because the Falcons are not good. But it's the last game at Candlestick Park, one of the truly historic venues in the NFL.
10. N.Y. Giants at Detroit, 4:05 p.m.: It seems unlikely that the Lions will lose to a truly terrible Giants team at home. But you wouldn't be surprised if it happened.
11. Dallas at Washington, 1 p.m.: Kirk Cousins and the Redskins might see the quarterback's trade value explode after an afternoon against that awful Cowboys secondary.
12. Denver at Houston, 1 p.m.: The Texans did give the Patriots a good game a few weeks ago. So anything is possible.
13. Cleveland at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.: Worth turning on just to see if the Josh Gordon train can keep rolling.
14. Oakland at San Diego, 4:25 p.m.: The Chargers aren't mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, and they're looking to avenge a loss at Oakland earlier this season.
15. Tampa Bay at St. Louis, 1 p.m.: Come on, at this point the Rams have to notice that the team has been a lot more competitive with Kellen Clemens than it was for the last few years with Sam Bradford.
16. Tennessee at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.: A Jaguars win here, and Jacksonville is in danger of falling out of the draft's top 10 picks. Who would have thought that at midseason?
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