The 11-4 New Orleans Saints travel to take on the 5-10 Carolina Panthers to end their regular season this Sunday. New Orleans needs a win, along with a Green Bay loss to Chicago and a Seattle win over San Francisco, to earn the NFC's Number One seed and a first-round bye. The Saints need a win just to secure the Number Two spot and a guaranteed home game in the divisional round. They will need to do it with a shorthanded offense that has been crippled with injuries and COVID-19.
Running back Alvin Kamara has been placed on the Reserve-Covid list because of a positive test that also has his status for a potential wild-card game in doubt. Running backs Latavius Murray and Michael Burton have also been ruled out of Sunday's contest because of close contact with Kamara. The Saints have called up rookie RB Tony Jones Jr. from the practice squad and will start WR/RB Ty Montgomery, who has a combined three touches for 21 yards in five games this season. They will also use Taysom Hill in a rushing role on several more snaps than usual.
The team's 7th ranked rushing attack will be severely shorthanded, but Kamara was also the Saints leading receiver with 83 catches for 753 yards. New Orleans will also be without wide receivers, Michael Thomas, Deonte Harris, and Tre'Quan Smith, who are on injured reserve until at least the playoffs.
Quarterback Drew Brees, who is just two weeks removed from a serious rib injury that caused him to miss four games, may have to shoulder the load for the team's 9th ranked offense. The Saints rank just 19th in passing offense, mainly because of the injuries at wideout and the time missed by Brees.
PANTHERS PASS DEFENSE
New Orleans faces a Carolina defense that ranks 18th in the league, allowing 361 yards and 24.6 points per game. The Panthers rank 17th against the pass, surrendering an average of 242 yards per outing and 68% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks. They've allowed seven quarterback to throw for at least 280 yards this season, including four 300-Yd outings.
The Panthers have intercepted only 7 passes, 3rd fewest in the NFL. Third-year CB Donte Jackson leads the team with 3 interceptions and has developed into one of the league's better corners, allowing only 55.7% completion percentage when targeted. Offseason acquisition Rasul Douglas has been a disappointment at the cornerback spot opposite Jackson, surrendering 63.3% and six touchdowns when targeted and failing to intercept a pass. Rookie CB Tony Pride and veteran Corn Elder have also struggled, allowing a combined 68% completion percentage and three scores. Carolina has allowed 14 receivers to have at least 70 yards, including seven 100-Yd outings.
Safeties Tre Boston and Juston Burris, who have an interception each, are savvy veterans, but the Panthers added a potential star defender in Jeremy Chinn, a rookie 2nd round pick. Chinn, who is used in a hybrid role, has an interception and five passes broken up while leading the team in tackles. Linebackers Shaq Thompson and Tahir Whitehead are both athletic defenders in space, but have often been out of position in pass coverage this season.
The Panthers have only 27 sacks this season, among the fewest in the league. Second-year DE Brian Burns is a star and leads the team with 9 sacks and 36 pressures, but Burns is doubtful for this game with a shoulder injury. Third-year DE Efe Obada is second with 4.5 sacks, but has also been struggling with a shoulder injury. Veteran DE Marquise Haynes and rookie 2nd round pick Yetur Gross-Matos have combined for 6.5 sacks and have been more disruptive pass rushers over the second half of the year.
The Panthers used all seven of their draft picks this spring on defensive players. Their first choice, DT Derrick Brown, was the 7th overall selection. Brown got off to a slow start, but has 2 sacks and 10 QB hits over his last seven games. Carolina is thin at defensive tackle outside of Brown, but uses a variety of stunts with their edge talent to get inside pressure.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
Drew Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage for the last four years, including a 70.7% this season. Brees has averaged 266.5 yards in the ten full games he’s played, throwing for over 280 yards six times with three 300-Yd performances. He’s thrown 21 touchdowns and just six interceptions, looking much sharper in his second game back against the Vikings last Friday.
Brees has made a career out of making average receivers look good, but will operate without two All-Pros in Thomas and Kamara, along with proven production from Harris and Smith. Veteran Pro Bowl WR Emmanuel Sanders is the top threat among his remaining targets. In his first season with the Saints, Sanders has 52 receptions for 663 yards and 4 touchdowns. He has three games with at least 80 yards receiving, including 12 catches for 122 yards against Detroit in Week 4, a season-high for the team.
Pro Bowl TE Jared Cook is also expected to have a larger role. Cook has had a quiet season by his standards, catching 33 passes for 461 yards. But he's been the team's best big-play threat down the field and has a team-high 6 receiving touchdowns. Rookie TE Adam Trautman, who has 14 receptions for 166 yards and a score, could play a bigger role with injured veteran Josh Hill being ruled out. Taysom Hill could also play a factor in the passing game because of the depleted receiving corps.
The injury issues have forced the Saints to use practice squad players like Juwan Johnson, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Austin Carr, and Tommylee Lewis at receiver in recent weeks. They got rookie WR Marquez Callaway back last week after a four-game injury absence. Callaway, undrafted from Tennessee, has 18 receptions for 162 yards and quickly earned the trust of his quarterback and head coach. Kamara's receiving ability and versatility was a big key to the passing attack, but Ty Montgomery is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield and from the slot.
Brees will need extra time to let his inexperienced wideouts get open. He has perhaps the NFL's best offensive line in front of him to provide that protection. New Orleans quarterbacks have been sacked 27 times this season, but just 11 on Brees in eleven games. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are the league's best duo at the position. Each routinely silences the NFL's top pass rushers, often one-on-one, allowing the offense to use double teams inside.
Center Erik McCoy has had an outstanding second season, handling some of the top defensive tackles and nimbly moving into place for double team blocking. Guards Andrus Peat and Nick Easton have both had injury issues, but each should be ready to go for Sunday. If not, the Saints have proven depth here with veteran James Hurst and rookie 1st round choice Cesar Ruiz. Peat and Ruiz have each had issues with pass protection at times this year, something to watch against Carolina DT Derrick Brown.
With the injuries at wide receiver and the possible limitations of a depleted running back unit, the outcome of this game could be decided by Brees and his pass protection. Expect the Saints to rely on a short, quick timing passing attack to get Brees and his inexperienced wideouts into a rhythm, deflect reliance away from the running game, and make protection easier. New Orleans will take some downfield shots, hoping to keep Carolina coverage from sitting on underneath routes. The Saints ‘‘no-name'' receivers like Callaway, Humphrey, or Johnson are going to have to get separation and make plays for their 41-Yr old quarterback. Their ability to do so could mean the difference between a Number 1 seed and a first-round bye, or a number 3 seed and potential road game in the second round of the playoffs.