The Carolina Panthers aren't ready to take over the NFC South. Not yet.
The New Orleans Saints toyed with their division upstarts Sunday night, winning 31-13 in the Superdome. The victory moves New Orleans to 10-3 and in firm control of the division with three weeks left.
The differences between the teams in this game were stark. Carolina has the most methodical scoring offense in the league. The Saints hit big plays. New Orleans had five receivers with gains over 20 yards. The Panthers didn't have a single "explosive" throw.
Carolina is used to getting pressure with their front four. We found out Sunday what happens when they don't. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was protected well all night, surgically picking the Panthers apart for 313 passing yards and four touchdowns through the air.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has received a lot of credit all season for avoiding mistakes and taking the check-down pass. He did that again in New Orleans, but that only gets you so far. Newton doesn't have a receiver who can get vertical or an offensive coordinator adept at dialing up big plays. Newton averaged only 4.7 yards on 34 passing attempts.
The Panthers are a run-first team that is not comfortable playing from behind. Carolina didn't know how to throw the ball to catch up quickly in the second half. That's New Orleans' game. The Saints scored 21 points in the second quarter, and Carolina had no response.
The end of Carolina's eight-game winning streak is hardly a death knell for the team. At 9-4, the Panthers remain in terrific shape to lock up a playoff spot. Capturing the division is going to be much tougher.
The Panthers host the Saints in two weeks. Carolina could get revenge then, and it might not matter. In order to win the division, New Orleans just needs to win in St. Louis in Week 15 and hold serve at home against Tampa Bay in Week 17. The Saints, now 10-3, can lose in Carolina and still win the NFC South.
The Saints shook off an embarrassing loss in Seattle last Monday night, and dropped an even more costly loss on Carolina. You are only as "hot" as your last game, and now the Panthers have ground to make up.
New Orleans is a different team at home. The Saints have put themselves in position to host a divisional-round game this season.