It seems like it's been a slow burn for the Carolina Panthers rebuild from their 2-14 season in 2010, but three seasons later they are in position to win the NFC South and perhaps pose the biggest threat to the Seattle Seahawks for the conference title. In a rebuild that started with Cam Newton at quarterback, it's the evolution of a top-notch defense that has finally gotten them near the top of the hill.
Now they just need to beat the New Orleans Saints to get all the way over that hill.
Both teams finished 7-9 last season and seemed poised to take a step forward in 2013. While the Atlanta Falcons have collapsed and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have disappointed, that has allowed the Panthers and Saints to stand alone atop the South and reign supreme for at least one season.
But which team will win on Sunday in Carolina and stand alone on top of that mountain? It's almost as vital as a playoff game itself, with the winner taking a huge advantage with one week left to go in the regular season. Here's a closer look at the matchup.
Meet the Panthers
The addition of Newton at the top of the 2011 draft helped improve the offense from being ranked 32nd in offense to fifth, thanks to an incredible rushing attack that included a record 14 touchdowns from Newton on the ground. Still, the defense was very weak.
The next season, both units were ranked near the middle of the pack, and the Panthers finished just below .500.
With the addition of Luke Kuechly in 2012, plus Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in 2013, the defense is now ranked second in points and yards allowed and Carolina is one win away from likely winning the South for the first time since 2008. If they can beat New Orleans, they'll take a one-game lead in the division with one game to go. If they can then beat the Falcons in Atlanta in Week 17, they'll have a first round bye and at least one playoff home game to show for it.
Which is at least as important for Carolina to get as it is for New Orleans.
Meet the Saints
With head coach Sean Payton suspended last season, the Saints stumbled to an 0-4 start. They rebounded to go 7-5 over the final 12 games of the season, with an offense as potent as ever, but nobody gave up more yards last year than New Orleans did. To combat that, they hired former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to take the same position under Payton for the Saints.
They are currently fifth in points and yards allowed.
However, they have struggled mightily outside of New Orleans. In losing two of their last three games (both on the road) the Saints have opened the door for the Panthers to come in and take the division. If New Orleans wins on Sunday, they'll win the division and get a home game. That's good, because they are 7-0 at home but just 3-4 on the road.
If they're going to win their fourth division title under Payton, they'll likely need to do it by winning on the road.
Local Takes: Carolina Panthers
You can't mention how good this defense is without giving credit to their pass-rushing duo of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. The two have combined for 17 sacks this season and James Dator of Cat Scratch Reader noted ProFootballFocus player grades from the Panthers win over the Jets last Sunday:
Greg Hardy (+3.5)
The Panthers needed a big game from Greg Hardy in the worst way, and he came through. It was clear Charles Johnson was off his game, likely still recovering from flu-like symptoms, which allowed Hardy to assert himself.
It was fun seeing Geno Smith run for his life away from the Kraken. He never got far though, being sacked once, hit four times and pressured on another two occasions. Great all-around game from Hardy.
Local Takes: New Orleans Saints
Payton is back and the Saints are back on top, but J.R. Ella of Canal Street Chronicles, talks about why Sean Payton "Needs to do better" and what needs to be improved for New Orleans to beat the Panthers and take the division:
Ok, I'll try: what is the solution? How does one change the evidently fragile road psyche of this Saints team? How does one make them believe they can win on the road against a good team when they couldn't even overcome the lowly Jets and Rams away from New Orleans?
I don't have a clue. And you know why? Because I'm not the highest-paid coach in the NFL, Payton is. Next Sunday, he'll need to figure something out as New Orleans goes on the road in a pivotal game against the Carolina Panthers.
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These two teams met two weeks ago, and it was a banner day for Drew Brees and the Saints. Winning 31-13 in New Orleans, Brees threw four touchdown passes, including three in the second quarter. Carolina has a notoriously stingy defense, especially in the first half, but at home the Saints looks untouchable.
This game is not in New Orleans however.
The Panthers are 6-1 at home this season — their only loss was a 12-7 Week 1 game against the Seahawks — and allowing just 11.85 points per game in Carolina. The Saints haven't won on the road since Week 5 in Chicago, and have lost their last four games outside of Louisiana.
This game should be closer than the last one and it would be surprising to see either team go over 30 points. It should also provide an opportunity for the Panthers to take a major advantage headed into the playoffs.
CAR 23, NO 17
The Panthers are 3-point favorites, according to OddsShark.com. The Saints are 7-6-1 against the spread and 0-2 when they're the underdogs. Carolina is 5-3-1 against the spread when they are the favorites.
If the Saints win, their next game will hold absolutely no consequence to their fate. They'll be the number two seed and can't go up or down from there. If they lose, however, they might need to win their next game to even get into the playoffs. Their final game of the season is against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 1 p.m. EST Sunday, Dec. 29 at home.
The Panthers head to Atlanta, to take on the Falcons in the season finale, on the same date and at the same time.