Game Scout: Panthers at Saints

Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Carolina Panthers (9-3) at New Orleans Saints (9-3)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans - TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer
*Keys to the game: The Saints were dismantled in Seattle, where everything went wrong Monday. But they're back at home where they are 6-0 and have averaged 33.2 points per game this season. The Panthers will watch the game tape from Monday night closely - only Carolina (13.1) tops Seattle's 15.5 defensive scoring average. These are also the top two teams in terms of average time of possession. New Orleans doesn't expect to win this game on the ground, but the Saints do need enough protection to keep QB Drew Brees out of third and long. His protection hasn't been as strong this season and the Panthers have a strong tandem in DEs Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. When given time, however, Brees will look to stretch the field against Carolina's one true weakness - a secondary that can be beat over the top. New Orleans loaded up against Seattle's ground game last week and it backfired with the secondary getting torched. The Saints face another mobile threat in QB Cam Newton, who leads the Panthers with a 5.5-yard average per carry and has been particularly dangerous on third downs.
*Matchup to watch - Panthers LB Luke Kuechly vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham: Kuechly is seemingly in on every tackle, but the one chink in his armor this season has been in coverage. Look for the Saints to attempt to isolate him over the middle against Graham, who has totaled 32 receptions, 412 yards and three touchdowns in his last four games against the Panthers.
*Player spotlight - Saints RT Bryce Harris: The second-year pro is tossed into the fire if Zach Strief (knee) can't play. It's a tough assignment with Johnson expected back from his own knee injury.
*Fast facts: The last time the Panthers were "flexed" into a Sunday night game was in 2008, which is also the last time they reached the playoffs. ... The Panthers have outscored opponents 133-41 in the second halves of their nine wins. ... Brees has a 122.2 passer rating at home this season.
The fight for the NFC South crown - and a first-round bye - is on with these teams set to lock horns twice in the next three weeks. Carolina is riding an eight-game winning streak while the Saints looked awful on Monday night. But New Orleans is a different beast at home, where the Panthers will be a beat slower off the snap and Saints QB Drew Brees enjoys a big bounce back.
*Our pick: Saints 23-19

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