The NFC South Division crown came down to the last day of the regular season. It seems only fitting that the teams that were in the mix play each other during the Wild Card Weekend. The Carolina Panthers will go to New Orleans to take on the Saints because the Saints won both regular season meetings and thus won the division. Oddsmakers installed the Saints as a six-point favorite at BetDSIand we haven’t seen a whole lot of movement off of that number so far. The total is up there at 48.5, but it has come down from the opener of 49.5.
The Panthers were favored by five and lost at home early in the year and the Saints were favored by six and won later in the year, so we see this number open at -6. The Saints were a -4 favorite on the opener for that December 3 game and it makes sense that the number would pop there for this game. The Panthers went 11-5 straight up and 9-6-1 against the spread after falling short last week against Atlanta. The Saints also went 11-5, but had those two head-to-head wins over the Panthers. New Orleans wrapped up at 9-7 ATS with a loss in Tampa Bay as a six-point favorite. Once it was clear that Carolina was going down, the Saints lost their edge and failed to finish off the Buccaneers.
Statistically, this game is a pretty noticeable mismatch. The Panthers only managed five yards per play this season and allowed 5.3 yards per play. They really ran well on the right side of variance and managed to win 11 games and own a +36 point differential despite being -0.3 yards per play. Cam Newton didn’t have the best of years with a 22/16 TD/INT ratio and a 59.1 percent completion percentage. Neither Jonathan Stewart nor Christian McCaffrey were close to four yards per carry. McCaffrey did wind up with 1,086 yards because of 80 receptions for 651 yards, but he only had 3.7 yards per carry. From Week 9 on, though, McCaffrey averaged 4.7 yards per carry, so the Panthers found better ways to utilize their most diverse offensive player. A healthy Greg Olsen would help, but the Panthers only got 17 catches on 38 targets from him. To put it frankly, the Panthers don’t win with offense and when they do, it has to do with Christian McCaffrey. Does Cam Newton have one of those NFL MVP-esque performances in him this week?
In two meetings against the Saints this season, the Panthers allowed 362 yards and 400 yards. Given what the Saints did to most of the league’s teams, that was an admirable showing. Carolina was great in the red zone, holding opponents to a 47.7 percent success rate, which easily cracked the top 10. The Panthers allowed 5.3 yards per play, which rated in the middle of the pack overall. Carolina’s all-or-nothing style against the pass will make for an interesting game here. The Panthers had 50 sacks, but allowed a 63.8 percent completion rate, over 11 yards per catch, and had them 20th in adjusted net yards per pass attempt. Will the Panthers be able to get to Drew Brees? That could be the deciding factor in the game.
How good was New Orleans’s offense this season? The Saints led the league with 6.3 yards per play. It wasn’t as impressive of a number as Atlanta’s league-leading 6.7 yards per play last year, but the Saints were the most balanced offense in the NFL. It is scary to think about a 38-year-old Drew Brees with just 536 pass attempts, his lowest total since 2009 when he had 514 pass attempts. He completed a career-best 72 percent of his passes with a 23/8 TD/INT ratio. The Saints led the NFL with 4.7 yards per carry. Mark Ingram had a career year and Alvin Kamara fit that Reggie Bush type of role that gave the Saints so much success earlier in Brees’s career. Kamara and Ingram both had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and superstar wide receiver Michael Thomas caught 104 balls for 1,245 yards. It’s hard to keep track of all of these weapons when you’re an opposing defense. The Saints had the most efficient passing offense in the NFL with 7.7 adjusted net yards per pass attempt.
Lost in how impressive the offense has been is that the defense took some massive strides from past seasons. The Saints were regularly among the worst defenses in the league, but some smart drafting and developing turned the Saints into something like a league average defense. The Saints were inside the top 10 in adjusted net yards per pass attempt against, but did struggle to stop the run. The Saints were 27th on third down, though, which is why the yards started to mount, especially late in games. Carolina’s offense managed 288 yards and 279 yards against the Saints, so New Orleans had the right formula to shut down this division rival in the two previous meetings, so we’ll have to see if they can put the pieces in the right places again to have another dominating effort.
Free NFL Picks: New Orleans Saints -6
It is hard to go against the Panthers and Cam Newton, but the statistics certainly do not support the case of an 11-5 team. Maybe Carolina is just one of those teams that finds a way to get it done, but the Saints have the stats to back it up and will be at home in the dome, where Brees has historically been much better throughout his career. The Panthers have mostly played up to their competition, but the Saints comfortably controlled both previous meetings and should do so again here.