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New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers

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On 12/17/2013 06:13 AM in NFL
The NFC South will be decided in one big game this weekend as the New Orleans Saints will travel to Carolina to take on the Panthers. After getting blown out against the St. Louis Rams, Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints will be eager to prove that they can win on the road when they face the Panthers in this pivotal divisional game. Read More Here

Check back all week as this thread will be updated on a regular basis with information on this game and a free pick by gameday!
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12/17/2013 03:01 PM
The Saints had established themselves as clear NFC South leaders with a convincing win over nearest rivals the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago, but they are now back to square one following the 27-16 defeat against the Rams.

That means Payton's men go up against the Panthers on Sunday once more, but this time on the road, in what is being billed as a winner-takes-all showdown with the two teams sharing identical 10-4 records.

After last Sunday's game, Payton made it clear he was considering making some changes to his team - with kicker Garrett Hartley, who missed two attempts at goal against the Rams, in serious danger of losing his job.

"It's our jobs very quickly here with an important game coming up to make corrections -- and then also to look closely at who we're asking to do certain things," he told reporters.

Hartley had a lean spell earlier on in the season which prompted the Saints to try out replacement kickers, and Payton wouldn't be drawn on what the future holds for the 27-year-old Texan.

"Listen, I think we're looking closely at every element," he said.

"You know, I told the players today in the team meeting we're looking closely at each aspect of this team. And not trying to read into my answer, I just think it's important for us to do that.

"Whether it's [the kicker], the tackle position, whether it's a player on defense, the one thing I know I don't want to do is just repeat the process over and over again.

"So we're gonna look closely at what our options are and what gives us the best chance as we get ready to play this coming week and then obviously one week remaining."

After their showdown against the Panthers in Carolina, the Saints take on the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, with a play-off place still well and truly up for grabs.
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12/18/2013 04:22 PM
‘Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn’t downplaying the significance of this Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints. When it comes to regular season games, Rivera said, “It’s about as big as it gets.”

The Panthers and Saints are tied atop the NFC South at 10-4 with two games remaining. The Saints, who beat the Panthers 31-13 on Dec. 8, can clinch the division and a first-round bye with a victory. The Panthers can do the same if they beat New Orleans and win at Atlanta the following week.

Rivera said the opportunity to play the Saints for the second time in three weeks — particularly at home — “comes at a good time” for his team after getting throttled in the Superdome.

“We get right back in the saddle and get to compete against them,” Rivera said. “We don’t have to wait two or three weeks down the line.”

Rivera hopes that having home-field advantage Sunday turns the tide in Carolina’s favor.

The Panthers have won six straight at home since losing their season opener to Seattle. Meanwhile, the Saints have struggled on the road where they’re 3-4, as opposed to 7-0 at the Superdome.

“I’d like to be able to pinpoint one specific thing and say we’re going to change this one element and all of a sudden play better” on the road, Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday. “Historically during our years here we have been a very good road team.”

Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross is thankful this one is at home and on grass.

“We’ll be at home, which is huge,” Gross said after Sunday’s game. “The dome is a tough place to play and they were coming off a tough loss, so shame on us if we didn’t see that coming. But, we’re feeling confident again. We never really lost confidence after the last game but it was definitely a bit of a wakeup call to go down there and lose like we did.”

Rivera suggested after the 18-point loss to the Saints that the Panthers “might have got a little full of ourselves.”

He doesn’t see the Panthers being overconfident again.

“There’s no reason to be,” Rivera said. “The thing that we have to do, most certainly, is focus in on this game. There is no reason to get caught up in anything else other than this game.”

The Panthers must do a better job in the red zone if they want to beat the Saints, Rivera said.

In the first meeting Carolina was forced to settle for three field goal attempts in the first half, while the Saints converted their three trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. The Saints led 21-6 at the half, and the Panthers never threatened again.

There is also the matter of finding a way to shut down Brees, who gouged Carolina’s then top-ranked defense for 313 yards and four touchdowns.

Rivera said his staff is studying how the Seahawks and Rams shut down the Saints in two of the past three games and made no secret about Carolina’s plans to play copycat this week.

“We have to take a look and see what things they did that mesh well with our game plan, and try to incorporate those things as well” in the game plan, Rivera said.

If the Saints will learn any lesson from last week it might be the danger of poking at the Panthers.

Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes said last week the secondary was its “weakest link” on Carolina’s defense. The Panthers used that as bulletin board fodder and held Holmes to 17 yards on two catches and held Geno Smith to 167 yards passing in a 30-20 win over New York.

“It helped to illuminate one of the things that we talked about — and that’s that we’re a team,” Rivera said. “If somebody is going to pick on a member of the team, then they’re going to pick on the whole team. You challenge one member of the team, you challenge us all. You fight one of us you are going to fight us all. And I think that is the bigger message.”

Rivera said the Panthers are expected to have Cam Newton available for the rematch.

Newton injured his toe on Carolina’s final snap of the first half Sunday, but didn’t miss a snap. Rivera said the injury is not a concern and shouldn’t keep the third-year quarterback out of practice this week.
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12/19/2013 02:42 PM
It's a pretty straightforward scenario for the New Orleans Saints this week: win and they'll not only clinch the NFC South, but also the conference's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

If they lose, the exact same circumstances will await the Carolina Panthers in Week 17.

After New Orleans' latest road stumble, the second showdown in three weeks between the Saints and Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte will guarantee a playoff spot for the winner while likely dealing the loser a precarious path in the postseason.

New Orleans (10-4) took control of the South with a 31-13 rout of Carolina (10-4) at the Superdome on Dec. 8, but its margin for error took a massive hit a week later in St. Louis.

A Saints win over the Rams would have allowed them to stay in the driver's seat even with a loss at Carolina due to a superior conference record. But after New Orleans committed three turnovers and fell behind by 24 points en route to a 27-16 loss - its fourth in five road games - this visit to Carolina may make or break its season.

"We know what we're playing for - we're playing for the divisional championship and the two seed so it doesn't get any bigger or better than that," quarterback Drew Brees said. "It is going to be a challenge for us. Obviously we understand our deficiencies on the road here the last couple of trips. It is great motivation for us to really hammer down this week, find ways to improve and get better."

While the Saints were coming up empty in St. Louis, Carolina bounced back at home with a 30-20 win over the New York Jets. Coach Ron Rivera, though, admits he got a bit caught up in checking the out-of-town scoreboard.

"A few too many times, to be honest with you," Rivera said. "I did get distracted a couple of times. ... I did hear the crowd cheer and when I looked up they showed the (Saints') score, so that caught my attention."

Carolina will win the South and the conference's second seed with a victory Sunday and a win at Atlanta or a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17. Should the Saints win, they'll be able to rest some starters in their finale with the No. 2 seed locked up.

A loss could be especially damaging for the Panthers. Carolina could still clinch a playoff berth with losses by Arizona and San Francisco, but it also could find itself in trouble should it head to Week 17 tied with the 9-5 Cardinals due to its head-to-head loss.

Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers two weeks ago, bringing his totals at home to an NFC-best 23 TDs, an NFL-best 73.2 completion percentage and a 122.5 passer rating.

On the road, Brees completes just 63.4 percent for an average of 6.94 yards per attempt, nearly two fewer than at home, with an 86.3 QB rating and seven of his 10 interceptions.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that the Saints average 32.9 points at the Superdome and 18.4 on the road - 27th in the league.

"This is not a 'show up on Sunday and play' sport," tackle Zach Strief said. "So, when you go on the field and put that on tape and play like we have on the road it's absolutely concerning."

Strief will have a new partner at tackle in Carolina. Left tackle Charles Brown was benched in St. Louis after committing a key penalty and playing a part in Brees being sacked four times, so the Saints will give rookie Terron Armstead the job of protecting Brees' blindside against a Panthers defense that leads the NFC with 45 sacks.

That's not the only change after the debacle against the Rams. New Orleans released kicker Garrett Hartley after two misses in St. Louis and signed veteran Shayne Graham.

"These aren't decisions you make for effect," coach Sean Payton said. "You don't do that. At least we don't."

Carolina's only loss in its last 10 games came at the Superdome, and it has been especially dominant at home. The Panthers have won six straight there by an average of 18.7 points.

Cam Newton was sacked five times at New Orleans and an NFL-high 28 on the road, but he's been sacked just 10 times in seven home games.

Like Brees, big plays have been a much more common occurrence for Newton at home. He's averaged 8.36 yards per attempt in Charlotte with 12 plays of 25-plus yards. He has only one in his past three road games while throwing for 4.84 yards per pass.

Newton has averaged 9.35 yards per attempt, hit five plays of 25 or more and accounted for five total touchdowns while going 1-1 at home against New Orleans.

He ran for 71 against the Saints last season at home, and it won't be a surprise to see Carolina attack New Orleans on the ground. The Panthers have averaged 178.5 yards rushing - 5.7 per carry - in their past 10 games against the Saints, but only ran 13 times after the first quarter in the first meeting.

"It was a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go," Newton said after the Dec. 8 loss. "The best thing about this is we have an opportunity to face this team again in two weeks (at Carolina). Those guys just were better than us today.

"Are they better than us? No."
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12/20/2013 10:32 PM
Both sides are pretty healthy heading into their clash for the NFC South. Safety Rafael Bush (ankle) is doubtful to be in the Saints’ lineup while linebacker Keyunta Dawson (calf) and tight end Josh Hill (hamstring) are questionable.

Running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) is out and the Panthers’ injury report is otherwise made up of players expected to be in the lineup on Sunday.
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12/20/2013 10:57 PM
A lack of pressure from Carolina's imposing front seven along with far too much zone on the back end spelled doom for the Panthers against Brees in New Orleans.

"We didn't play our game down there," Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott admitted. "We didn't respond and play the way we normally play. That also goes back to my calls and the game plan. There is a lot we can improve on. We've got our work cut out for us. We've got to make sure we play our style of football when they come in here."

Colston had nine receptions for 125 yards and two scores in the first outing, while Jimmy Graham added a pair of TD catches for the Saints.

McDermott seems to understand he was far too passive in the Superdome and will certainly amp things up in front of his home crowd, although it's always preferable to get a strong rush from the front four against a quarterback like Brees.

"Statistically, you know that he's pretty darn good against the blitz," McDermott said when asked about Brees. "Most great quarterbacks are better when you blitz them because they want to get the ball out into the receivers' hands. Drew is no different, so we'll have to be smart. We'll have to cover well if and when we do blitz."

The Rams were able to generate a significant pass rush from their front four but also possess Robert Quinn, perhaps the best pure pass rusher in all of football. Carolina has two excellent pass-rushing ends themselves in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and Hardy, the right end, really needs to step it up this time.

Embattled Saints left tackle Charles Brown was benched this week in favor of rookie Terron Armstead after struggling so much with Quinn.

"One of the strengths of our defense is our front four." McDermott said. "I'm hoping we can get off the rock and play some good defense upfront. That's the spearhead of our defense."

Conversely the Panthers need to protect Newton far better than they were able to a few weeks ago. The Saints sacked the dynamic Carolina quarterback five times in the Superdome and Newton was able to get loose just once while running the football. Junior Galette notched three of the Saints' sacks in that one as Newton completed 22-of-34 passes for just 160 yards and a touchdown.

"We all need to adjust as an offense to make sure we're on the right page with who's blocking who, with getting the ball out on time and receivers getting open," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "It also helps to stay out of long-yardage situations where people think you're going to pass."

Shula believes getting the Saints' rushers like Galette and Cameron Jordan off the artificial turf in the dome will slow them down a bit. He's also intent on working in some screens and misdirection plays to make Rob Ryan and his defense think a little bit.

"You've got to mix in those screens. It helps our offensive line and hopefully slows down the pass rush," Shula said. "Misdirection-type things can keep guys off-balance. Defenses are so athletic and can get to the ball fast, so sometimes you can use that aggressiveness against them."

Besides the benching of Brown New Orleans made another key personnel move this week on special teams, cutting inconsistent kicker Garrett Hartley in favor of veteran Shayne Graham.

"These aren't decisions you make for effect," Payton said. "You don't do that. At least we don't."
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