Panthers vs. Saints: NFC Wild Card Weekend preview

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The Backstory


"You can't triple stamp a double stamp." -- Harry Dunne.

The New Orleans Saints thwarted their division rival Carolina Panthers twice this season by double digits. Can Sean Payton's crew triple stamp Cam Newton & Co? and punch their ticket to Minneapolis to play the Vikings in the Divisional Round?

In sweeping the regular-season series, the Saints moved the ball at will against a stout Panthers defense, averaging 381 yards per tilt and 32.2 points per game. Conversely, Carolina turned the ball over four times in the two meetings, with Newton throwing for fewer than 185 yards in each matchup.

The overriding belief among most of the football world is that it's difficult to overwhelm an opponent three times in one season. The truth, however, lies in the numbers. Sunday afternoon's battle at the Superdome marks the 21st time since the 1970 merger that a team swept a division opponent in the regular season and will meet for a third fight in the playoffs. Teams winning the first two battles are 13-7 in the postseason rematch -- 4-2 since divisional realignment in 2002. The last team to avoid a three-game sweep came in 2007 when the Giants beat the top-seeded Cowboys on their way to a Super Bowl victory.

In the first two matchups this season, the Saints chewed up the Panthers on the ground, averaging 148.5 yards rushing. The first tilt came pre-Adrian Peterson trade, with Alvin Kamara touching the ball just five times for 42 yards (he did provide a harbinger of the breakout season to come with a 25-yard TD gash). In the second meeting, Kamara and Ingram combined for 248 scrimmage yards (145 rush on 23 carries). The success the Saints had on the ground was no fluke against a Panthers defense that allowed 88.1 rushing yards per game this season, third fewest in the NFL.

Newton's turnovers (3 INTs) doomed the Panthers in the Week 3 loss. His legs kept Carolina close before falling in the second matchup. Newton's variance in wins and losses has told the story of the Panthers' season. In 11 wins, the former MVP is completing 60.8 percent of his passes for 7.3 yards per attempt, 18-5 TD-INT ratio and 95.4 passer rating. In five losses, Newton is completing 56.1 percent of his passes for 5.7 yards per attempt, 4-11 TD-INT ratio and a 53.6 rating.

Newton didn't have his security blanket, Greg Olsen, in either tilt against the Saints. The tight end should play a big role in the third meeting. But Newton did have the luxury of not facing a Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Marshon Lattimore, who sat out both tilts due to injury. If the standout rookie corner shuts down Newton's No. 1 receiver, Devin Funchess, can the QB make enough plays with his legs to power the Panthers past the Saints on Drew Brees' fast home track?

Under Pressure


Cam Newton, QB, Panthers: As noted above, Newton carried the Panthers in wins and cratered in losses. Last week's loss in Atlanta saw the QB at his worst, repeatedly throwing high and off-target, completing just 41.2 percent of his passes with three interceptions. Carolina must lean on the run game early in New Orleans. Since Week 10, the Panthers own the NFL's best rushing offense (160 yards per game). More designed runs for Newton opened the interior of the run game. The quarterback set a new career-high with 754 rushing yards this season (eighth-most by any QB in a season in NFL history). Expect Newton to keep the ball a bevy of time Sunday. The key for the quarterback in the playoffs will be on third downs, when he should often look for Olsen and Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield. Newton was the second-worst passing QB on third downs this season -- among 31 qualified passers, only DeShone Kizer (52.7) had a lower rating on third down than Newton (59.8), per NFL Research. If Newton isn't better on the money downs Sunday, Carolina can't win on the road.

New Orleans Saints defense: It's undeniable the Saints' defense improved by leaps and bounds this season. The pressure here stems from the injuries sustained: Alex Okafor, A.J. Klein, Kenny Vaccaro, Alex Anzalone and Hau'oli Kikaha are among key players lost to IR on defense. Does Dennis Allen's D have enough depth to stand tall in the postseason? Led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Cameron Jordan, the Saints can pressure the quarterback (six sacks of Newton in two meetings). The key for New Orleans will be linebacker Manti Te'o against Newton and the Panthers' run game. Te'o performed well for stretches when attacking the line of scrimmage versus the run since having his snaps increased following Klein's injury. Can he hold up in space if asked to routinely cover Olsen or McCaffrey? The backend of the Saints' defense is led by two stud rookies in Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams. We don't expect them to falter, but youth can sometimes get caught up in the bright postseason lights. The biggest question for the Saints is on third down where they couldn't stop a nosebleed last week (allowing the Buccaneers to convert a whopping 13 of 18 -- 72 percent). The winner of the third-down battle between the New Orleans defense and Cam Newton could tip the playoff scales.

Matchup to Watch


Alvin Kamara & Mark Ingram versus Panthers Linebackers: Kamara and Ingram powered the Saints back to the playoffs, becoming the first running back duo to each record 1,500-plus scrimmage yards. With both able to run up the middle and perform in the passing game, Sean Payton owns a tactical advantage over the Panthers' defense. Kamara is the key. Classifying Kamra as a third-down back or satellite player would be false. The electrifying rookie can do it all -- power, elusiveness, quick cuts, speed at the second level. Karmara led the NFL in yards per carry between the tackles (6.3), per Pro Football Focus. His clashes with Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly could be epic. The Pro Bowl LB owns an 11.3 percent tackle rate on runs snaps (highest rate among inside LB) with just one missed tackle, per PFF. However, the passing game is where Kamara could do damage against the Panthers' speedy linebackers. The RB forced 29 missed tackles in the passing game (most among RB). Kuechly, meanwhile, missed 10 tackles in the passing game (T-3rd most among ILB). If Carolina's set of linebackers can't slow Kamara and Ingram, the Panthers will get ground to dust on the road.

Prediction


It's funny how season-long narratives have a way of becoming moot in the playoffs. Much of the season we've heard faulty talk about how Drew Brees isn't the same quarterback, despite setting the record for completion percentage. Yes, Brees has been asked to do less this season with the Saints riding Ingram and Kamara. In the playoffs, however, Brees will remind us he's still a Hall of Fame quarterback. With the Panthers keeping the game close deep into the fourth quarter, Brees will unleash a dime to Michael Thomas down the middle. The wideout gallops through the Carolina secondary for a touchdown to pull the Saints away and get the party started on Bourbon Street.

New Orleans Saints 30, Carolina Panthers 17

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