With two divisional match-ups on Sunday, the race for second behind the Atlanta Falcons is very much alive. A Tampa Bay win against the Falcons would give them second place, but a loss would mean that the winner of Carolina and New Orleans takes the silver.
Both the Panthers and Saints are very different teams than they were when the sides last met in week two. Carolina was trying to find their way, still reeling after an unexpected loss against the then unproved Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Meanwhile New Orleans were learning to adapt without many of their players and head coach Sean Payton -- fallout from the team's bounty scandal. Now both teams meet at the Superdome a lot more experienced and playing much better football, but both doing too little, too late, relegating themselves to spending January at home.
Meet the New Orleans Saints
This team is essentially the same unit they have been for the last several years -- a mediocre defense, but an overwhelming offense that proves too much for most teams. What's missing is the edge, the final element needed to take a very good team, and turn them into an elite one. In short, they miss Sean Payton.
Drew Brees is still as dangerous as ever, on the verge of yet another 5,000-yard season with a big day against the Panthers. Brees is completing almost 63% of his passes, and has thrown 39 touchdowns -- yet this is considered a 'down year' for one of the league's best quarterbacks. His 18 interceptions on the season is high, tied for the second-most in his career, however this is an elite quarterback who Carolina don't have an adequate answer for.
Meet the Carolina Panthers
Ron Rivera's future as the Panthers' head coach remains in the balance. Several reports believe the second-year coach could be fired post-game on Monday, while others believe he has a chance to remain in Carolina in 2013 under a new general manager.
The Carolina Panthers are playing for respectability and pride. Near-obsessed with the prospect of a 7-9 season, the organization is leaning on a desperate desire to show improvement -- even if it's just one game better than their 6-10 season last year.
Internally, this is still a team brimming with self-belief, even if their exuberance that lead to a preseason Superbowl prediction from center Ryan Kalil was woefully off the mark. Most teams in the league are looking to play out 2012, the Panthers have a lot more they're gunning for.
Local Takes: New Orleans Saints
Dave Cariello of Canal Street Chronicles outlines how close quarterback Drew Brees is to history:
Brees needs 219 yards to be the 1st in NFL history with three 5,000-yard seasons.
Local Takes: Carolina Panthers
As I wrote for Cat Scratch Reader, the lack of an elite defensive tackle helps the Panthers:
Without a signature interior pass rusher to give them problems, the Panthers should be able to give Cam time, even with the line banged up.
Follow the Fun
Be sure to check out SB Nation's team blogs, Canal Street Chronicles, and Cat Scratch Reader, for more analysis and highlights from the game.
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Panthers fans: Do you agree with this NFL writer who called Cam Newton 2012's biggest "scrooge? "ow.ly/1Qy32x— CSR (@CatScratchReadr) December 26, 2012
This should be a fun game. The Panthers have won four of their last five. Their defense has given up just 13 points in the last two weeks. But that was against the Raiders and Chargers. The Saints are slightly different than those two teams (and by slightly, I mean drastically). The Panthers beat them in Week 2, but they can't do the same in the Superdome.
The pick: 35-30, Saints
The New Orleans Saints are favored by five points at home, according to OddsShark
Both the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints will miss the playoffs, and now have the long wait until April's draft.