What to watch for in Saints-Panthers on 'MNF'

The Panthers aren't done -- not yet.

At least mathematically, as Carolina (6-7) still owns a shot at the NFC's final wild-card spot if the club can halt their ghastly five-game losing streak and embark on a three-game run of victories to close the campaign.

Tall order, indeed, considering the Panthers play a pair of tilts against the Saints wrapped around a clash with the Falcons. If they handle their business and the Vikings tumble once, Carolina would make the playoffs in 67 percent of the 77,385 scenarios generated by the New York Times depending on how the Eagles and Redskins fare over the next two weeks.

Still, none of this matters if the Panthers can't knock off the NFC South champion Saints just hours from now at home.

Here's what we'll be watching for in this season-defining meetup:

  1. Winning their division for the second straight year, the Saints (11-2) sit in pole position for homefield advantage after watching the Rams (11-3) crumble to the Eagles on Sunday night. Their slate includes next week's match with the Steelers in between these Panthers bouts, but the Saints can still lose one of their final three games and seal up the top seed after downing Los Angeles 45-35 in Week 9. There's plenty to play for on both sidelines.
  1. More immediately, the Saints are looking to work their way out of an offensive funk that set in during a 13-10 prime-time loss to the Cowboys and lingered into last week's 28-14 win over the Bucs. The Cowboys loss came on a Thursday night -- those games lend themselves to funky results -- against a talented defense. Last week's tumble against Tampa, though, saw the Saints rush for three first-half yards and manage just 105 total yards over the first two quarters against a suspect Bucs defensive core. Still, this slump hasn't triggered losses as the Saints leaned on a game-altering blocked punt by Taysom Hill, the backup passer who doubles as a dangerously versatile jackknife on offense and all-around special teams Superman.

That blocked kick opened the door to 25 unanswered points for the Saints, who almost seemed to be working themselves out of writer's block as Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas all found ways to contribute alongside the ultra-reliable Drew Brees.

  1. Brees tops the NFL with a 120.8 passer rating this season and still runs the league's top-scoring attack, but a big night on national television would go a long way toward boosting his bid for MVP honors. This wily veteran isn't always the same on the road, but it helps to face a Panthers defense that was carved alive by Baker Mayfield and the Browns in Week 14. Lost in that Panthers loss, though, was a truly spectacular effort by Carolina's Luke Kuechly. This is exactly the type of game the star linebacker thrives in, so keep an eye on him roaming the field in an attempt to shut down the backfield duo of Kamara and Ingram. Kamara is coming off two down outings and hasn't scored in three tilts, but looms as a candidate to get involved in the passing game tonight. Ingram's numbers don't shine of late, but he ran with toughness against the Bucs.
  1. There's reason to believe Brees can spread the ball on the road against a Panthers secondary that gave up completions of 66 and 51 yards to the Browns. While Thomas and Kamara clearly lead the way through the air, New Orleans has found recent help from a trio of tight ends in the ageless Ben Watson ahead of Josh Hill and Dan Arnold. Young receiver Keith Kirkwood is also a candidate to see targets.
  1. The biggest concern for Carolina is Cam Newton's banged-up throwing shoulder, which has led to a rash of off-kilter, wobbly and underthrown lobs. He's also found a way to unfurl a handful of beautiful connections, but his arm strength appears to plummet as the game wanders on. It's worth noting the Panthers have inserted backup Taylor Heinicke on Hail Mary attempts in back-to-back games. Against the Browns, too many of Cam's passes sailed high, including a fourth-and-goal misfire aimed at Jarius Wright in the end zone with 2:35 left and the Panthers down by six. Minutes later, Cam returned to throw a game-ending pick.

Carolina's game plan of late has called for shorter throws to catch-and-run wonders Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore -- along with a dosage of big-bodied Newton on the ground. The Panthers will aim to make it work against a rugged Saints defensive front led by Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins. Expect McCaffrey to rumble for real estate and serve as a focal point -- and likely make history -- as his 1,627 yards from scrimmage sit just 10 yards behind the franchise record set by DeAngelo Williams in 2008.

Moore, meanwhile, looks like a star-in-the-making with yardage totals of 157 and 91 over the past month along with a white-knuckle five-catch, 67-yard outing against the Browns that allowed him to show off his hand strength with a few tough grabs and his elusiveness on a 40-yard catch and run. Rookie tight end Ian Thomas is also coming off the best game of his young career.

  1. Whispers suggest Panthers coach Ron Rivera could be fighting for his job over the next three weeks. While he hasn't authored consecutive winning seasons in Carolina, he's tugged the team to the Super Bowl and generally turned the Panthers into a watchable, competitive squad. With a flock of franchises set to search for new leadership, I'd argue the Panthers should sit tight. The roster needs help -- especially on defense -- but Rivera is also saddled with a quarterback who can't make all the throws right now.
  1. Injuries of note: Panthers kicker Graham Gano (knee) will be replaced again tonight by Chandler Catanzaro while defensive tackle Kawann Short is questionable with a calf injury. The Saints are relatively healthy outside of missing offensive tackle Terron Armstead with a pectoral injury.

Real talk: With next week's Monday tussle looming as an ultra-snoozer between the Broncos and Raiders, this is your final shot to carve out a little weeknight treat. Hand out gifts on Christmas morn, but make tonight about yourself as you overspend on lavish foodstuffs and a collection of dangerously pretentious craft beers imbued with hints of grapefruit, husky oak and forest juniper. If you play your cards correctly, you'll be feeling just fine when your boss texts you at 11:37 p.m. with the stunning reminder over a work task you utterly blanked on, as she writes: "You're all set for that three-hour verbal presentation on the firm's plans to blow up the accounting department from the ground up and remake it in my image -- correct? The 237-slide deck is proofed and ready to roll? Did you add the 37 slides I requested by email an hour ago? Please respond with your detailed outline ASAP. Where are you?"

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