Game Scout: New Orleans Saints (11-2) At Carolina Panthers (6-7)
SERIES HISTORY: 47th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 24-22, including a 12-11 mark in Charlotte. But the Saints have won the last three meetings, all of which came last season. New Orleans prevailed, 34-13, in Charlotte in the first meeting, then 31-21 in the regular-season meeting in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and again 31-26 in a wild-card playoff game in New Orleans, the only post-season meeting between the long-time NFC South rivals.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers have to find ways to make plays on offense when the pressure is on. They've been unable to convert in key situations and that has resulted in the recent slide. With quarterback Cam Newton's shoulder in question, it might not be logical to expect them to try to take many shots down the field, but they must find other ways to involve speedsters such as wide receiver Curtis Samuel in the game plan. Running back Christian McCaffrey remains a logical outlet, but if the Saints suspect that Newton is limited they're bound to gang up on McCaffrey.
The Panthers never solved Saints quarterback Drew Brees last season and they know that getting pressure on him and making some of the passing lanes difficult is the best way to disrupt him. Carolina will have to be ready for lots of downfield action after the defensive unit has been hurt over the top recently, meaning more resources might be needed on the back end. If so, it will put a premium on linebacker play to make sure the Saints don't unleash a relentless rushing attack.
Both teams, and their passing games, are at their best when they're able to run with some consistent success. The Panthers are second in rushing offense and the Saints are tied for ninth. The Saints are first in run defense and the Panthers are seventh. If either team has a significant edge in the running game they will have an excellent chance of winning.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Saints LBs vs. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey does for the Panthers what Kamara and Ingram do for the Saints in terms of being effective in both the running game and the passing game. McCaffrey can run inside and outside, catch the ball down the field and be a dangerous safety valve, meaning all the Saints linebackers - and others - will have to have a hand in containing him.
--Saints OL vs. Panthers LB Luke Kuechly. Kuechly perennially is one of the most active defensive players in the NFL and this season is no exception. His ability to make tackles all over the field, including in the backfield, can disrupt any offense, including the Saints. Two weeks ago, Dallas rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was a major factor in slowing down the Saints offense in Kuechly-like fashion. New Orleans will have to do a better job of accounting for Kuechly than it did Vander Esch.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers WR DJ Moore. He's proving that he was worthy of being a first-round draft pick. Moore is the top rookie in the NFL in receiving yards with 676. He has 826 yards from scrimmage this season, needing 183 more to produce the most in franchise history by a rookie receiver.
FAST FACTS: SAINTS QB DREW BREES leads NFL in comp. pct. (75.7) & rating (120.8). In 10 games vs. division since 2017, has completed 253 of 330 passes (76.7 pct.) for 2,714 pass yards (271.4 per game) with 21 TDs vs. 4 INTs for 116.4 rating. ... RB ALVIN KAMARA is 1 of 2 in NFL in 2018 (TODD GURLEY II) with 1,300+ scrimmage yards (1,384) & 15+ scrimmage TDs (15). ... WR MICHAEL THOMAS had 11 catches for 98 yards in Week 14. Has 298 receptions since entering league in 2016, most by player in his 1st 3 seasons in NFL history. Ranks 2nd in NFL with 102 catches this season. ... Rookie WR KEITH KIRKWOOD has TD in 2 of his past 3. ... DE CAMERON JORDAN had 2 sacks last week. Ties for 3rd in NFC with 12 sacks. ... CB MARSHON LATTIMORE had INT & FF in Week 14. Aims for his 4th in row with FF. Has 3 FFs, 2 INTs & FR in his past 4. ... LB DEMARIO DAVIS led team with 8 tackles last week. Leads team with 95 tackles in 2018. ... PANTHERS QB CAM NEWTON had 2 pass TDs vs. 0 INTs for 107.5 rating in last meeting. ... RB CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY had 101 scrimmage yards (63 rush, 38 rec.) & 2 rush TDs in Week 14. Aims for his 7th in row with 100+ scrimmage yards. Has 2+ TDs in 5 of his past 7. Since Week 8, leads NFL in TDs (12) & ranks 2nd in scrimmage yards (960). ... WR CURTIS SAMUEL had team-high 80 rec. yards last week. Aims for his 3rd in row with 80+ rec. yards. ... Rookie TE IAN THOMAS had career-high 9 catches & 77 rec. yards in Week 14. ... LB LUKE KUECHLY led team with 11 tackles & had 2 FFs last week, his 1st-career multi-FF game. Has 11+ tackles in 3 of his past 4. ... Rookie CB DONTE JACKSON had career-high 10 tackles in Week 14. Leads NFL rookies with 4 INTs in 2018.
PREDICTION: The New Orleans offense has hit some snags recently, while the Panthers are seeking to remain alive in the playoff hunt after losing five straight with the last four by a total of 17 points. It will be close, but the Saints find a way to win.
OUR PICK: Saints, 24-21