Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET on Fox
PANTHERS AT A GLANCE
Key player: QB Cam Newton. After his landmark 2015 MVP season, the Panthers feinted at reducing Newton’s workload, keeping him in the pocket and reducing the number of open-field hits he’d take. The result was like pulling the engine out of a speedboat and expecting oars to make up the difference. So the Panthers have gone back to pounding with Newton, and surprise, they’ve started winning again. Newton led the Panthers with 754 yards rushing, and his six touchdowns tied Jonathan Stewart for the team lead. This isn’t the recipe for a long and easy career path for Newton, but for the Panthers, the only way deep into the playoffs is behind their battering ram of a quarterback.
Why they’ll win: New Orleans ranks right in the middle of the pack on most team defense categories—16th against the run, 15th against the pass—which is good news for Carolina and its dink/dunk/destroy offense. Newton can pound the ball into the Saints line and then dump off to Devin Funchess or Greg Olsen, keeping the Saints D on its heels and the Saints offense on the sideline. Alvin Kamara can’t beat you on long rushes if you’re holding the ball, right?
Why they’ll lose: This isn’t the Carolina Panthers of 2015, even though most of the key faces remain the same. Olsen is hurting, having missed several games (including both New Orleans matchups) this season. Jonathan Stewart isn’t his old self, and missed the season finale against the Falcons with a stiff back. That means the ball, and the game, have to go through Newton, who struggled to move the ball against New Orleans in the regular season.
Keep in mind: Newton threw for fewer than 185 yards in both games against New Orleans this year, both double-digit losses, and the Saints kept the Panthers 50 yards below their offensive averages in both games. With Stewart out of the lineup and Newton ineffective, the Panthers struggled against Atlanta in Week 17, and a repeat of that could mean an early exit from the playoffs.
SAINTS AT A GLANCE
Key player: Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints. The Saints began the season with a two-running back attack, the assumption being that Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson would bulldoze opposing defenses. But Peterson was a bust in New Orleans, and it turned out that his replacement, a third-rounder out of Tennessee, was a revelation. Kamara and Ingram became the first running back duo to combine for 1,500 yards in a season, and Kamara in particular transformed the Saints. He’s a threat out of the backfield, as a receiver, and as a return man, and it’s unlikely the Panthers will have answers for him in all those venues.
Why they’ll win: Because they don’t need quarterback Drew Brees to be a hero. Brees threw 137 fewer passes and 14 fewer touchdowns this year than last. His 23 touchdowns in 2017 were the fewest since he played in San Diego, and that’s a testament to New Orleans’ multi-pronged attack. Kamara and Mark Ingram attack a line like a couple of logs rolling downhill, and they’ll make life miserable for both the Panthers’ line and their secondary. And Brees is still Brees, meaning he’ll be able to pick and choose his targets all afternoon. This is going to be a rough go for Carolina.
Why they’ll lose: Carolina’s D ranked third in the league against the run, and while it’s kind of a pick-your-poison situation against the Saints, taking Kamara’s wrecking-ball capability out of the mix weakens New Orleans’ overall attack. That’s easier said than done; New Orleans rushed for 149 and 148 yards in both its regular-season wins against Carolina. And Cam Newton is the game’s greatest X factor; if he comes plugged in and on his game, there aren’t many defenses that can contain him, much less stop him.
Keep in mind: New Orleans ranks fourth overall in points and averages 30.1 points at home. The Saints can score quickly and often, and Kamara can break off a long run or a return at any moment. Expect at least one 50-plus-yard heartbreaker of a run out of this crew.
This divisional rivalry hasn’t yet reached the seething, searing, I-hate-you-and-your-family level of Saints-Falcons, but this game could change all that. The division champion Saints are riding a wave that hasn’t yet crested to entitlement, but if Carolina comes into New Orleans and obliterates all those hopes and dreams? It’ll get ugly. This ought to be the best game of opening weekend, and if Carolina plays up to its potential and New Orleans keeps on the path it’s already blazed, this one will end off the week on a fine note.