Following that loss, the Panthers needed some help from the St. Louis Rams and/or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to get another opportunity to win the division. It seemed unlikely that a five-win team could knock off Drew Brees and the Saints in a highly important game with division title implications.
But anything can happen in the NFL, and the Panthers, who seemed to never get a break in the past, are finally starting to get a few things to go their way.
The Saints laid an egg last Sunday, falling 27-16 to the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome. That loss, paired with a 30-20 Panthers victory over the Jets, afforded Ron Rivera's team another opportunity to leapfrog New Orleans and jump into the driver's seat in the NFC South.
So what exactly is at stake?
If the Panthers take care of the Saints on Sunday, they will be one win away from securing the NFC South title — which means a first-round playoff bye followed by a home game in the divisional round.
A loss would likely put Carolina in a wild card slot, provided they can dispose of the Falcons in the Georgia Dome in Week 17.
For the Saints it’s very simple — beat the Panthers and clinch the division title. But things have been anything but simple for Sean Payton's team on the road this season. The Saints are a perfect 7-0 in the friendly confines of the Superdome, but just a mediocre 3-4 in opposing stadiums. Drew Brees and co. will have their hands full at Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers have posted a 6-1 record this season.
However, the Panthers' advantage on Sunday extends beyond just home field. While Sean Payton and the New Orleans coaching staff will likely employ a gameplan similar to the one that yielded a decisive victory two weeks ago, you can expect Ron Rivera and his staff to make a great deal of adjustments, particularly on offense.
Based on Carolina's playcalling last week against the Jets, look for a offensive coordinator Mike Shula to neutralize Rob Ryan's aggressive defense with a healthy dose of screen passes to DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert
The Saints will have to adapt to these changes as they settle into the game. Nonetheless, it's important for the Panthers to jump out to an early lead. In their four losses this season, the Saints have been outscored 88-31 in the first half.
Additionally, the Panthers, after surrendering 21 points in the first half, only allowed 10 points in final two quarters — another promising takeaway from the first meeting. The defense will have to build on that strong second half by applying consistent pressure on Brees, which they failed to do in the Superdome two weeks ago. The Panthers will look to blitz early and often, especially if the front four struggles to get after the quarterback.
Although Panthers fans should be optimistic about the team's chances on Sunday — everyone knows what the Saints offense can do when it's firing on all cylinders.
I will reserve my prediction — but I do see the Panthers playing much better football in this critical second matchup. After all, the outcome of this game will determine whether this Carolina team is a legit Super Bowl contender.
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