Blake Baxter

Let The Battle For NFC South Supremacy Begin (Again)

Created on Dec. 21, 2013 5:14 AM EST

Two weeks after the New Orleans Saints convincingly took down the surging Carolina Panthers, the two division rivals are neck and neck again in the NFC South. In their last matchup, the Panthers appeared to be on the verge of usurping the division lead, but the Saints put them in their place with a 31-13 victory in New Orleans. Although the game was billed as the end-all, be-all game for the division, in reality this was never the case. The two had a rematch in a couple of weeks that was going to be entertaining, at the very least. However, after last week’s outcomes, this rematch became even more intriguing.

The Panthers bounced back against the New York Jets, as expected. Their offensive line stepped up and the running game was solid. The defense allowed more points than usual, but overall, the team got the job done and stayed in the division race as a result. The New Orleans Saints, on the other hand, failed to knock off the comparatively lowly St. Louis Rams. Despite 393 passing yards from Drew Brees, the Saints lost 16-27 and in the process, gave Carolina another shot at leapfrogging them in the division.

Both teams now stand at 10-4. Both teams will also face opponents with bad records in the final game of the season, so it is something of a foregone conclusion that one of these teams will finish at 12-4 and the other will finish at 11-5. The Panthers could fall to the Atlanta Falcons or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could beat the Saints in Week 17 – stranger things have happened  – but that seems unlikely. It appears that this weekend is actually the winner-takes-all showdown that the league and NBC wanted the last time around.

These teams will know each other a little bit better this time around – both their strengths and their weaknesses. The Saints (and the rest of the NFL) knows how terrific the Carolina defense has been and how threatening QB Cam Newton can be, just as the Panthers know how potent the Brees-Jimmy Graham combination has been this season. At this point in the season, these kinds of matchups are givens.

So, what kind of things should we be looking at when evaluating this game?

Well, for one, location. This game is being played in Charlotte. This season, the Panthers have lost one game at home – to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1. New Orleans, however, has not lost a single game at home but that will not matter this weekend. On the road, the Saints simply have not been very good. They are currently 3-4, with one respectably close loss to the New England Patriots, a disappointing 20-26 loss to the Jets and two particularly ugly losses – one, a slaughter to the Seahawks and the other, the aforementioned loss to the Rams.

Over the course of the whole season, the Panthers have been the more consistent team. But that does not mean that they are without their weaknesses. While they currently have the second best defense in the league, the Panthers largely have their front seven to thank for that. Their secondary has been much maligned since before the season even began. In the early going, the DBs were to blame for some of the team’s struggles. However, to its credit, the secondary has been pretty good for the majority of this season. That being said, it is still the weak link on a team that has surprisingly become quite complete.

Look for Brees to try to exploit CB Drayton Florence early and often. Florence was cut before the season, but rejoined the team after a flurry of injuries in the early going. Since then, he has been impressive as an unexpected starter this season, recording two interceptions, eight passes defensed, 23 total tackles and even a touchdown. But at 33 years of age, Florence has lost a step and has a tendency to get burned from time to time.

The Panthers running game does not quite have the depth that the team was hoping it would at one point this season, but veteran DeAngelo Williams' 81-yard performance last week was an encouraging sign. It also never hurts – as the Saints are well aware of by now – to have a dangerous scrambler like Newton on your side. Newton, as usual, will be one of the many important factors in play during the game that will likely decide who wins the NFC South this season.

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