Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Sunday, January 7 th , 4:40 EST.
The Saints are back atop the NFC South after three seasons mired at 7-9 and rookie of the year candidate Alvin Kamara is a huge reason for the turnaround. His ability as a second rusher to Mark Ingram and as a versatile receiver and kick returner has been just the boost the Saints needed to once again become one of the league’s top units. The Saints trail only the Patriots in total offense and rank fourth in points scored. Kamara has recorded over fifteen-hundred yards this year with thirteen of the teams fifty-one touchdowns. The balance that the improved running game has brought to the Saints offense can’t be underestimated. Drew Brees now has a much more convincing play action scheme to take advantage of, and defenses must respect Ingram and Kamara by loading the box. The result is an offense that won’t yield Brees’ best statistical season (he’s thrown almost one hundred fewer passes this season than last year), but might well land them in the NFC Championship game or beyond. Defensively, the Saints have benefitted from a more aggressive Cameron Jordan, who’s having his best year ever, with career highs in sacks (13), passes defensed (11), and tackles (48). As a unit, they’ve improved considerably over the porous units of the past few years, ranking tenth in points allowed.
The Panthers have been tough to understand this year. At times they’ve looked like a contender, beating both the Patriots and Vikings. At others, they’ve looked way worse than pedestrian, getting just destroyed by the lowly Bears. A large part of the struggle can be attributed to an over-dependence on Cam Newton making something from nothing. Cam hasn’t had the consistently MVP caliber numbers this season, but who can blame him? He’s also the team’s leading rusher. Running back Jonathan Stewart has been largely ineffective, netting only 3.4 yards per carry over the course of the season. A midseason trade that sent Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo seems to have worked well for both teams, as Newton has done well spreading the ball around since his favorite target’s departure. On the defensive side of the ball, Luke Kuechly has had his typically productive season, accounting for 125 combined tackles and captaining his defense by always being in the right place at the right time. The unit is among the league’s best at stopping the run, but has been somewhat susceptible to better passing attacks over the course of the season.
These divisional rivals see a lot of each other, and this season, the Saints have gotten the better of the Panthers both times, with a combined margin of 65-34. I don’t see a lot that the Panthers could do to upset the applecart, but a huge game from rookie Christian McCaffrey would be a start. Will it be enough? I don’t think so.
Image source: twitter.com/Saints
Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.