It’s a myth that NFL games in November and December count more. They all count the same. However, games down the stretch take on an added feeling of importance. And this weekend in the NFC, we have some matchups that are super important and could go a long way in deciding division and/or home-field advantage.
The biggest one is in the NFC South between the Panthers at the Saints, both 8-3 teams.
The Saints beat the Panthers, 34-13, in Week 3. Entering that game, the Panthers were 2-0 and the Saints 0-2. Those Saints looked like the Saints of the last few years — an offense with zero defense. New Orleans forced three turnovers and made Cam Newton uncomfortable all day on the way to the victory. That was the first of eight straight victories for the Saints, led by their defense and running game, before losing on the road to the Rams last week.
The Panthers have taken a different road to 8-3, one slightly less predictable. They have looked unbeatable in stretches, with wins at New England and Detroit in back-to-back weeks, only to lose on the road to the Bears, 17-3.
The Panthers are what I thought they’d be. Defensively, outstanding. Playmakers all over the place. On offense, they are as Cam Newton goes. If Cam is up, they are up. If Cam is down, they are down. The Panthers have surprisingly struggled to run the ball this season, and like I predicted (humble brag), it has taken 10 weeks to figure out how to use Christian McCaffrey.
Will the Saints lean on their lethal running game?
The Saints are second in total offense; the Panthers are second in total defense. The Saints are third in rushing; the Panthers are third in rushing defense. You can keep playing this game throughout the matchup.
The Saints rushing attack is led by the two-headed monster of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Since Week 6, the Saints running game is first in the NFL in yards per game, yards per carry, and touchdowns.
As usual, when you have a good ground attack, your offensive line is beastly, which is the case with the Saints. Here’s a power run that went to the house against Washington. Watch the entire right side of the line collapse:
The Saints added former Lions guard Larry Warford to the lineup in free agency. They are currently averaging a remarkable 6.18 yards rushing behind him, second in the NFL.
When is the last season anyone started a conversation about the Saints with the rushing attack? Maybe never.
The Saints still have Drew Brees at the helm of this offense, and the passing game is as potent as ever when called upon. Brees is completing 71 percent of passes with a passer rating of 104.1. This offense is lethal.
Is the same old dominant Carolina defense enough?
Carolina’s defense is exactly what I thought it’d be entering the season: tough against the run, can rush the passer (fourth in sacks) and has legitimate ability to defend the pass. James Bradberry has become a legitimate lockdown corner. This defense has added more pressure wrinkles this season with new defensive coordinator Steve Wilkes.
My favorite defensive player in the NFL to watch is Luke Kuechly. He’s constantly in the backfield on run plays.
Kuechly is also the most instinctive defender in the league. Here he is running the route for the Dolphins tight end and picks off Jay Cutler:
As good as the Panthers rush defense has been, it still allows 3.9 yards a carry, which is slightly high for a top rushing defense. It ranks in the middle of the pack when you break down yards per carry in certain gaps. It surprised me to see these stats. This is where I think the Saints can take advantage of the Panthers defense.
If the Saints commit to the run early on and continue throughout the game, they will eventually wear down the Panthers defensive line. The Saints offensive line is built with some big boys who can match up physically with the Panthers stout defensive front.
Running the ball opens up the play-action pass, and Drew Brees has the seventh-best passer rating in the NFL on play action. While that has not been the offense’s bread and butter, against the Panthers, it will be a must. If you allow Kuechly and Thomas Davis to roam free into zone coverages, it will disrupt the passing game.
Have the Panthers settled on an offensive identity?
The reason why I can’t ever fully commit to the Panthers as Super Bowl contenders is because their offense is so up and down, and it starts with Newton. Week to week, we have no idea what Cam we might see.
Going back to their Week 3 matchup, Newton and the Panthers didn’t have an identity. The Panthers offense was still trying to figure things out, and Newton wasn’t using his legs.
Here was Saints defensive lineman Cam Jordan after that game: “Clearly he's trying to be more of a pocket passer, and I'm OK with it. Perfectly fine with it.”
Now Cam is back to using his legs, which had to happen. This sets up a different game on Sunday. However, Cam is still a quarterback, and that requires throwing forward passes. He ranks among the bottom half of passers in many statistical categories, like passer rating, yards per game, and completion percentage. Coupled with what was an uncharacteristically poor rushing attack through the first eight weeks of the season — it’s gotten better in their last three games — I don’t know what to expect from the Panthers week to week.
The Saints defense will succeed this weekend if likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore is back on the field. According to Pro Football Focus, Lattimore is allowing a passer rating of 47 when targeted. He’s been a lockdown corner. If he’s playing, he’ll see a lot of Devin Funchess, whose play has improved since the Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin, almost doubling his yards per game.
I like Lattimore in this matchup. Having a lockdown corner allows the Saints to pressure more often and allows someone to spy on Cam. Both of these are needed when facing the Panthers. Last weekend, the Jets had some success using their pressure package against the Panthers.
If Lattimore plays, the Saints win by 10. If Lattimore is out, I still think the Saints will win, but it’ll be a close game. I trust the Saints more in this huge division game at home in the dome!