The New Orleans Saints (11-4) come into this Sunday's road game against the Carolina Panthers (5-10) with a chance for the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. New Orleans needs a victory, along with a Green Bay loss at Chicago and a Seattle win over San Francisco.
The Saints come into the season finale with the NFL's 9th ranked offense. They're averaging 378 yards per game and 29.9 points per contest, fourth-best in the league. The Saints are sixth in red-zone efficiency and 3rd down percentage. A usually prolific passing attack has slipped to 19th because of an injury to Drew Brees that sidelined him for four games and a battered receiving corps for most of the year. However, the Saints remained effective offensively because of the outstanding balance.
New Orleans owns the league's 7th ranked rushing attack, averaging 140.6 yards/game on the ground. Their 29 rushing touchdowns are the most in the league, and only two opponents have held them to under 90 yards rushing this year. The Saints have run for over 200 yards three times and are coming off a season-high 264 yards rushing in a win over the Vikings.
They look to continue that momentum in a rematch over a Carolina team that they defeated 27-24 in Week 7. The Panthers rank 18th defensively, giving up 361 yards and 24.6 points per contest. Carolina has forced 22 turnovers, fifth highest in the league, and ranks around the middle of pack in red-zone defense, but is 31st in the league on 3rd downs. The Panthers have given up over 30 points five times and have held four opponents under 20 points.
PANTHERS RUN DEFENSE
Carolina's run defense has allowed 118.7 yards/game this year, ranking 16th in the league. They've held five teams under 100 yards rushing, but six running backs have at least 90 yards against them. Only four teams have given up a higher average per carry than the 4.7 against the Panthers.
Rookie 2nd round pick Jeremy Chinn leads the Panthers in tackles. Chinn has had a marvelous inaugural season and has been a hybrid linebacker/safety for Carolina. Undersized LB Shaq Thompson is second in tackles for a defense that lost All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly to retirement this offseason and has often been pushed around at the point of attack. The Panthers have only 52 tackles for loss this season.
Rookie defensive tackle Derrick Brown, the 7th overall selection, has shown significant improvement over the second half of the year and looks like he has a bright future. Brown is tied for the team lead with 8 tackles for loss and has provided consistent inside disruption. Defensive end Brian Burns is one of the NFL's better pass rushers but is also a capable run defender along the edge. Burns is questionable for Sunday with a shoulder injury.
Carolina's defensive front has been thinned out by injury during the year. Brown must dominate up front to draw blockers away from defensive ends Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos and linebackers Thompson and Tahir Whitehead. All are athletic sideline-to-sideline playmakers, but only Burns has good strength when taking on blockers head-to-head.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans has one of the NFL's most dominant offensive lines. They not only bully opponents at the point of attack but effectively open up cutback lanes for their runners. The Saints have most of their success over the right side but can pick up yards over either side. Offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead expertly seal off the edge on outside runs but also gets to the second level of the defense quickly on screens or downfield blocks.
Center Erik McCoy has had an outstanding second season. He gets an excellent push on inside handoffs and nimbly pulls to the outside on off-tackle plays. Guards Andrus Peat and Nick Easton have both missed time with injuries in recent weeks, but the team has terrific depth with veteran James Hurst and rookie 1st round pick Cesar Ruiz.
Running back Alvin Kamara leads the Saints with 932 yards and a league-high 16 rushing scores. Kamara, one of the NFL's most electric runners, is coming off a career-high 155 yards rushing and record-tying 6 touchdowns against Minnesota. He already has a career-high in rushing yards but is just 68 yards away from becoming just the eighth back in team history with a 1,000-Yd rushing season. Kamara has averaged 52 yards rushing in seven career games against the Panthers but has rushed for 7 touchdowns against them and had 83 yards on the ground in the October matchup between the teams.
Veteran RB Latavius Murray is the power complement to Kamara and has 656 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground. Both Murray and Kamara have outstanding vision and lethal cutback ability, allowing them to get into the secondary for big gains. Murray has one 100-Yd game this season, a 124-yard effort with 2 touchdowns in Week 12 against the Broncos. He has been hobbled by a quad injury, however, so the team could rest him this Sunday for their playoff push.
Taysom Hill is listed as a quarterback and played reasonably well when replacing Brees for four games. Hill's best contribution to the offense is his bruising running ability. He has 416 yards and 7 touchdowns this season and is one of Sean Payton's favorite weapons in short-yardage or near the goal line. If Murray sits out, we could see more of Hill out of the backfield and more use of fullback Michael Burton in short-yardage situations.
New Orleans rushed for 138 yards and averaged 4.8/carry in their October victory over Carolina. Rushing success will again be vital this Sunday. Not only for balance but to protect Brees and their still banged-up receiving corps. The Panthers' defense has worn down late in games, so an effective rushing attack will maintain possession and open up play-action opportunities. Remember that even if the Saints don't get the conference's top seed, a victory here is important to guarantee a home game in the divisional round if they win their 1st round matchup.
*UPDATE* Saints RB Alvin Kamara was placed on the Reserve-Covid list after Thursday's practice. He will miss this Sunday's game against the Panthers and could likely miss the team's wild-card playoff game unless the Saints earn a 1st round bye.
Due to close contact with Kamara, RB Latavius Murray and FB Michael Burton have also been ruled out of Sunday's game. The Saints have called up rookie RB Tony Jones Jr. from the practice squad and will start WR/RB Ty Montgomery, who has one carry and two receptions for a combined 21 yards in five games of action this season.