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Playoff games inherently have higher stakes than the regular season. When two divisional rivals meet in the playoffs, it adds a little something extra. That will be the case this Sunday when the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints (11-5) play host to the Carolina Panthers (11-5). Neither team is coming into the playoffs strong, both losing divisional games in Week 17. The Saints are looking to take maybe their last shot at another Super Bowl with Drew Brees, while the Panthers are hoping to recapture the magic of the 2015-16 season. New Orleans won both regular season matchups earlier in the year, and will look for the sweep this weekend, while Carolina will be looking for revenge.
Keys To The Game
It feels strange to say of a Sean Payton/Drew Bress offense, but the Saints will lean heavily on the run game to get this offense going. Mark Ingram has had the best season of his career, and rookie sensation Alvin Kamara proved to be a great compliment to him with his big play ability. In fact, Ingram and Kamara have been the most productive running back duo over a single season in NFL history. The Saints also have a very good offensive line, which will open up lanes in the running game. Look for a steady dose of Ingram, setting up Kamara for a potential home run play. Drew Brees is getting older, but he still passed for over 4,000 yards and remains highly accurate, tossing 23 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. If the Saints are able to use the ground game against a very stingy Carolina run defense, it will allow Brees to pick and choose his moments to take shots down the field. A future Hall of Famer and one of the best to ever sling it, Brees can pick anyone apart when he has an effective run game to lean on.
The Panthers on the other hand, will of course be leaning on quarterback Cam Newton. Newton does it all for the Panthers, just as he always has since entering the league. He is Carolina’s leading rusher, which they need him to be, as Jonathan Stewart has been showing his age this season, and rookie Swiss Army knife Christian McCaffrey is more receiver than runner at this point in his career. Carolina lacks an outside threat that can strike fear into opposing defensive backs, especially after trading Kelvin Benjamin at mid season. Lacking those options, it all truly does fall on Cam’s shoulders. As always, he will need to make plays with his legs to extend drives and create scoring opportunities for his team. He’ll also need to be able to hurt the Saints’ defense from the pocket to keep them honest. The concern is that Newton may try to do too much, which could leas to a costly turnover. If Cam can have a complete and largely mistake free game, Carolina will have a chance to pull out the upset.
The X-factor for the Saints is wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas has had a terrific season, with 1,245 receiving yards and five touchdowns. As mentioned previously, New Orleans will rely heavily on the run game, but it’s Thomas who can hurt Carolina for big gains, especially if Carolina puts eight men in the box. Expect Drew Brees to look Thomas’ way often, especially on play action passes.
The X-factor for the Panthers is tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen was injured for both of the regular season meetings between these teams, but he will be on the field Sunday. Olsen is a big target and Newton’s favorite weapon to utilize. He can hurt you down the middle of the field, and can be a security blanket for Newton when he gets into trouble. Olsen’s been quiet since his return, only having one big game (nine catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay), but if he gets going, he could be a difference maker for Carolina.
Prediction: Carolina may be better than they were in the previous meetings this season, but New Orleans just has too many weapons. Even if Carolina hangs around for a while, Drew Brees is simply less likely to make mistakes. New Orleans completes the three game season sweep with a 31-21 win.