Panthers vs. Saints, Week 14: Previewing the battle for the AFC South, round 1

Sunday night's game between Carolina and New Orleans, the first of two bouts between them this month, will go a long way toward determining which team wins the division and the second seed in the NFC playoff race.

The division is on the line in the first of two late-season meetings between the Saints and Panthers.  The NFL flexed this juicy matchup to Sunday night, and we're here to provide a full breakdown of this NFC South showdown.

When the Saints have the ball

Saints' Passing Offense DVOA:  39% (3rd in the league)

Panthers' Passing Defense DVOA:  -14% (3rd)

Saints' Rushing Offense DVOA:  -8% (22nd)

Panthers Rushing Defense DVOA:  -24% (3rd)

The headliner in this one is the strength-on-strength matchup between the Saints' air attack and the Panthers' pass defense.  While Drew Brees and company have been carpet bombing the league for years, the Panthers have enjoyed a rapid rise from 2011's defensive nadir to establish a No-Fly Zone this season.  The Saints have experienced the reverse on the ground, falling from second in the league in Rushing DVOA in 2011 to 22nd this year; an unpleasant prospect considering Carolina's rock-ribbed run D is on par with their passing defense.

Let's take a closer look at the matchups to see how things could unfold in the Superdome:

Screen_shot_2013-12-08_at_9

(Click for full view of the chart).

Slowing down the Saints in 2013 has relied upon getting up-the-middle pressure on Drew Brees and answering their unique assortment of weapons.  Marques Colston can still play the big frame/box out game to snag precision throws from Brees, and Robert Meachem/Kenny Stills have formed an effective clear-out and random deep ball combo.  But the Saint's special sauce has been moving the ball with their backs and tight ends, with Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles serving as unique weapons that severely strain typical defensive personnel.

Graham's size, fluid route running and ability to high-point balls makes him an absolute terror up the seam, and his athleticism allows him to operate from the slot or even split wide. Sproles' jitterbug quickness makes him tremendously dangerous on simple screens and swing passes. But if you fly too hard to the flat, his skill as a route runner and his ability to haul in over-the-shoulder grabs means that he can pick up a 50-yarder in a heartbeat.  A healthy season from the perennially under-appreciated Pierre Thomas has given New Orleans another dangerous weapon out of the backfield, and Thomas actually leads the Saints (as well as ranking second among all running backs) with 60 grabs on the season.  Brees' accuracy and decision-making makes the whole thing hum, and Sean Payton is a master of using innovative route combinations between backs, TEs and receivers to get these special weapons into favorable matchups in space.

How well-equipped are the Panthers to stop this kind of attack?  We got a look at a pretty good analogue in Week Eleven when Carolina took on the Patriots.  As they have been all year long, the Panthers were very good at preventing deep shots, but they had some trouble closing down on the ball on short throws and bubble screens in the flats.  Despite strong overall coverage work from the linebacker corps of Kuechly, Blackburn and Davis, the Panthers have had some struggles against backs in the passing game (22nd in Running Back receiving DVOA) and surrendered an 8/65 line to Shane Vereen in the back's first game back from IR.  Expect 10-12 catches between Sproles and Pierre Thomas as the Saints look to test the flats and get the ball out ahead of Carolina's fierce pass rush.

The Panthers have better success against TE's (8th in TE DVOA), and this is where impressive linebacker coverage combined with a revelatory season from safety Michael Mitchell have really come into play.  Carolina turned in a reasonably good effort against Rob Gronkowski, holding him to a 5/56/1 line (aided by holding him on the game's final play).  If they're able to impose similar limitations on Jimmy Graham the Panthers will be a long way towards a victory.

Of course, Drew Brees will terrorize any defense if given enough time.  The Seahawks were largely able to deny him that kind of time by collapsing the pocket, and Carolina offers a similarly diverse (if not as deep) roster of pass rushers. Carolina has an advantage with Charles Johnson going against Charles Brown, but Brees has been overcoming subpar left tackle play for years now.  Middle pressure from guys like Lotulelei and Kawann Short will be even more valuable, but it's easier said than done as the Saints have made building a G-C-G pass protection wall a priority for their six-foot superstar.

New Orleans likely struggles to get much done on the ground in this one.  Stretch plays to the left side may do a bit of work, but anything headed towards Greg Hardy on the right is likely DOA.  The Saints will at least need to convert some short yardage runs and keep the Panthers' front four from pinning their ears back and abandoning run responsibility, but topping 80 yards on the ground would be a big surprise.

When the Panthers Have the Ball

Panthers' Passing Offense DVOA:  21% (10th in the league)

Saints' Passing Defense DVOA:  -7% (8th)

Panthers' Rushing Offense DVOA:  8% (6th)

Saints' Rushing Defense DVOA:  -2% (22nd)

Cam Newton's growth as a passer has been incremental rather than meteoric, but he's taken another step forward this season in his footwork and decision-making.  If you're looking for meteoric, check out the Saints' improvement on pass defense. They endured historic roastings last season, but Rob Ryan's arrival has coincided with a serious pass defense Renaissance.

Let's see the key players who'll determine Carolina's offensive fate on Sunday night:

Screen_shot_2013-12-08_at_9

(Click for full view of the chart).

Carolina lacks an air show super-weapon, but they've managed a fairly efficient passing attack this season. Steve Smith is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he's still got the quicks and physicality to win in the short game along with the gear-changing savvy to get behind corners. Greg Olsen has been one of the league's most effective receiving tight ends, and his precise routes coupled with Newton's live arm make him a tough cover for linebackers when he breaks to the outside. Brandon LaFell has been another slow-and-steady improver, but he's running routes with more precision and getting more out of his size/speed advantages this season, particularly in the red zone. Ted Ginn, hero of Carolina's win over the Patriots, will never live up to his top-10 draft status but provides the kind of deep threat that allows Smith and Olsen to make money underneath.

New Orleans looks to match up fairly well with Carolina's receivers. Ex-Steeler Keenan Lewis has been a tremendous addition to the secondary, and he brings the kind of short-area quickness necessary to contain Steve Smith. Corey White and nickel back Chris Carr have also been solid performers. Slot receivers have given the Saints the most trouble this season (as evinced by Doug Baldwin's big night last Monday), and Carolina will likely look to get Smith a good number of slot looks while also sending Ginn deep from the slot occasionally to challenge the Saint's safeties.

New Orleans' biggest advantage on defense comes in the pass rush. Rob Ryan's blitztastic ways have yielded a ton of pressure this season, and the Saints actually rank first in the league in sacks per opponent pass attempt. The Panthers have had trouble protecting Newton this season, ranking 27th in sacks per pass attempt allowed. Fortunately for Carolina, the strength of their offensive line matches up with the typical alignment of New Orleans' two best pass rushers in OLB Junior Gallette and Pro Bowl-contending DE Cam Jordan. The right side of the line has been a major sore spot for the Panthers, and Ryan will be more than happy to test them with an array of blitzes should Akiem Hicks and Parys Haralson fail to generate sufficient pressure on regular rushes.

Carolina would certainly love to emulate the Jets' approach of simply bludgeoning New Orleans into submission with the ground game. The Saints have been vulnerable against the run, and Carolina figures to make some hay running behind the Gross/Wharton/Kalil left side even if they lack anything resembling an upper-echelon running back. On the right, Bell and Chandler have been such poor two-way players that they could compromise a balanced run game. In fact, they have the potential to compromise Carolina's entire offensive night.

The X factor for all of this analysis, of course, is Cam Newton. His ability to make plays with his legs helps turn the rest of Carolina's B- and C-grade offensive talent into a dynamic attack. Ryan won't be able to blitz him in the same way he could a static pocket passer, and we saw the ways that a mobile QB can give New Orleans fits when Russell Wilson took them apart at the Clink. Newton doesn't quite have Wilson's preternatural poise, but if he's able to keep his eyes downfield on the move and punish overload blitzes with a couple of big runs the the Panthers could be in business.

The Bottom Line

You hate to write a 1500-word piece and then have it come down to home field advantage, but that's the likely outcome on Sunday night. There's no denying that New Orleans is simply a different team at home, and in a game where two top teams' strengths and weaknesses balance out so closely that's the kind of edge that can make a difference. Call it 27-24 New Orleans, with Carolina likely taking the rematch in two weeks and the NFC South coming down to the season's final week.

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