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Panthers And Saints Prepare For Tight Race Ahead

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With two epic clashes scheduled in the final four games of the season, the Saints and Panthers control their own playoff destinies. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.
With two epic clashes scheduled in the final four games of the season, the Saints and Panthers control their own playoff destinies. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.

It is easy to forget that the NFL is 17 weeks long. Because it is a much shorter season than just about anything else, and because each team only plays one game per week, it is easy to get caught up in the moment. A team that starts off the season with a hard-fought win invariably looks better than a team that starts off with a hard-fought loss. A team that is 1-3 after five weeks appears to be down and out, while a team that is 5-0 looks to have the division all but locked up. However, in life and in the NFL, these kinds of things look a lot differently in retrospect. Such is the case with the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints.

While the Saints started off the season by defeating the NFC’s best team in 2012 (the Atlanta Falcons) to spark a five-game win streak, the Carolina Panthers made crucial mistakes down the stretch to a different possible Super Bowl contender (the Seattle Seahawks) before stumbling to a 1-3 record. But now, the Saints are coming off a Monday Night Football appearance in which they were drummed by a Seahawks team (and their deafening crowd) that barely edged Carolina back in September. The Panthers, on the other hand, are coming off an unlikely eight-game win streak. With their most recent win, a convincing 27-6 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to complete a season sweep over their division foes, the Panthers improved to 9-3. With the Saints’ brutal loss to Seattle, they fell to...well, also 9-3.

Carolina has been in the playoff race for over a month now, but just recently it became clear that they actually had a shot at stealing the division. And although the two teams now have the same record, the Saints currently have an edge on the tiebreaker due to their record versus common opponents – which essentially means the Saints beat the Buffalo Bills and the Arizona Cardinals, whereas the Panthers blew both of those games in Week 2 and Week 5, respectively. So now, the NFC South all comes down to one game on NBC. Well, not exactly, but the network sure would like you to think that. In reality, the football community is blessed with two final showdowns for the division - this is just part one.

At this point, it seems pretty clear that both of these teams are going to make the playoffs. However, as previously stated, this is the NFL - things change more quickly than we realize. But if the rest of the year does go as planned, then one of these teams will have a bye week and home field advantage in the playoffs, and the other will settle for a Wild Card spot. Which, considering how competitive the NFC has been this season, is a pretty big deal. Historically, the Saints have been awfully good playing in the Superdome and this season has been no different. At home, the Saints are 6-0 with all three of their losses coming on the road. However, Carolina has lost just one game at home, which was the aforementioned season opener to Seattle. Their success rate at home, coupled with the fact that as a team, the Panthers have no playoff experience, makes home field advantage to them that much more critical. New Orleans will have home field advantage for game one of the two-game set.

Beyond all of the exciting division and playoff implications, the game will be an interesting matchup between an efficient offense (the Saints average 26 points per game) and a dominant defense (the Panthers allow an average of 13.08 points per game). The Saints are currently 3.5-point favorites, but the Panthers suffocating defense and increasingly impressive win steak provide reason to bet against the home team this time around.

Regardless of the outcome though, there will be a rematch of this game in two weeks. And then, there is a chance these teams could meet up again in the playoffs after that, but we are still a few weeks away from that and each and every week matters in the NFL. It seems that the regular season is starting to wind down, but for the Panthers and the Saints, this is only the beginning.