• Last week: 10-5; Season: 79-41 (.658).
• Best pick in Week 8: Cleveland 24, Oakland 13 (Actual score: Browns 23-13).
• Worst pick in Week 8: New York Jets 17, Buffalo 13 (Actual score: Bills 43-23).
It doesn’t get any better than this: Two sub-.500 teams battling it out in prime time for first place in the laughable NFC South. The records may be unsightly, but like it or not, one of these two clubs is going to the playoffs, because the Falcons (2-6) and Bucs (1-6) certainly aren’t. That means that this first Saints-Panthers game of the season (the rematch is in New Orleans in Week 14) will put somebody on the inside track to the division title.
New Orleans (3-4) has had a tougher time with Carolina (3-4-1) than any other NFC South opponent in the Sean Payton coaching era, with Payton going just 7-7 overall (his 2012 suspension season excluded) against the Panthers. But most of those losses came early in his tenure: From 2009 on, Payton’s high-scoring Saints are 6-2 against the cool cats from Carolina.
Last Sunday night against visiting Green Bay, New Orleans finally looked like the explosive Saints we thought we’d see all season, rolling to a 44-23 conquest of the previously red-hot Packers. But they’re back on the road this week, where they have lost seven consecutive times in the regular season and shown a propensity to blow late leads in 2014. My gut tells me New Orleans is going to go at least 2-6 on the road this season, win seven of eight at home and cobble together a 9-7 division championship that will be far more difficult than anticipated.
Remember, no NFC South champion has ever repeated in the division’s first 12 seasons, with all four clubs earning a neat and tidy three titles each. The Panthers won it last year, meaning the Saints are next in line for the top spot. This game will be pivotal to that scenario playing out. Their slow, ugly slog to first place took half a season, but the Saints will get there and then commence a challenging three-game homestand against San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore.