Something's gotta give in the NFC South.
What promised to be one of the best divisions in football has turned into a swampy mess after three of the four teams fell to their Week 10 opponents. To make matters worse, the Saints and Panthers, who suffered the two more devastating of the three losses, have little time to recover before they put their seasons on the line on Thursday Night Football.
The Saints will fly into Charlotte on the heels of one of the more unique losses of the 2016 season, losing at home to the defending Super Bowl champions on a blocked PAT-turned-defensive two-point conversion -- we need a catchier name for whatever that was, pronto. Now briefly back under .500, New Orleans needs to regain the momentum it built on the offensive side of the ball and sweep Carolina to stay in the playoff hunt in the crowded NFC.
For the defending NFC champion Panthers, last Sunday was just another disappointing defeat. Having dominated the shorthanded Chiefs for three quarters, Carolina self-destructed on offense, surrendering two turnovers in its own territory in the fourth quarter and losing a home game in which it had a 17-0 lead. If last week's loss wasn't the Panthers' death knell, a second consecutive home defeat in five days would surely do the trick.
- Like clockwork, the Saints' passing game is once again wreaking havoc on secondaries. New Orleans' reliance on the arm of Drew Brees is nothing new, but the healthy bevy of young weapons he has at his disposal is. In Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Michael Thomas, the Saints boast their most impressive receiving trio since their Super Bowl-winning season. All three wideouts are averaging at least 65 yards per game and have combined for 15 touchdown receptions. Cooks particularly proved his big-play mettle last week against Denver's Pro Bowl secondary, snagging an improbable touchdown grab between three Broncos defenders; he also burned Carolina's defense for 173 yards during their first meeting in the Superdome. The corner-poor Panthers will try to divert more attention to Cooks, but they'll be playing right into New Orleans' hand. There is no win-win-win gameplan to covering the Saints' triad of terror, which makes their offense all the more fun to watch.
- Cam Newton may never regain last season's MVP form in this half-finished campaign, but at least he's directing his offense with a familiar confidence and composure. Facing three elite defenses following Carolina's bye, Newton has led commanding drives and gobbled up time of possession. Nowhere was this more clear than in the third quarter of last week's loss to the Chiefs when Newton led a 20-play, 10-minute drive into Chiefs territory. Cam was personally responsible for converting all five of Carolina's third downs before the drive stalled thanks to penalties and sacks and the Panthers punted from K.C.'s 40. If Cam and the Panthers can extend drives and grind down a lukewarm Saints defense on a short week, then Carolina should see more opportunities to hit big plays and less time for New Orleans to counter-strike.
- One man standing in the way of Cam's master plan to deteriorate New Orleans' D-line is Cameron Jordan. The sixth-year defensive end played with his hair on fire against the Broncos, contributing one of the Saints' six sacks of Trevor Siemian and recording eight tackles. NFL's own Gregg Rosenthal went as far to say that Jordan's work against Denver was a "masterpiece." The resurgence of Jordan and the Saints' front seven could also be attributed to the debut of rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who recorded his first sack of his career last week after missing the season's first eight games on IR, and emerging linebacker Craig Robertson. If New Orleans can get pressure on Cam and unnerve him, as opponents have done often against the MVP, then this game will look a lot different than the Week 6 barnburner in which just two sacks were recorded and 406 yards were relented.
- If any Panther is looking to break out statistically on a short week, it should be Greg Olsen. Cam's go-to man is the league's top receiving tight end (50 rec, 712 yards, 3 TD) and split New Orleans' pass coverage down the middle with a 94-yard showing in Week 6. That outing was the best by a single tight end against the Saints all season -- San Francisco's Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek combined for 160 yards in Week 8. By all metrics, Olsen had an off-game against Kansas City and should see more targets against an opponent he has already savaged.
- The following isn't coach-speak, I swear. These teams can't afford to beat themselves. Both New Orleans and Carolina threw away sure-fire, season-changing wins last week, thanks to ill-timed turnovers. For the Saints, it was the young Michael Thomas fumbling twice in his own territory, gifting the Broncos a decisive 10 points. In Carolina, Cam's backfooted interception, which was subsequently taken back to the house by Eric Berry, and Kelvin Benjamin's lax ball-handling in the game's dying embers quickly turned the tables on an otherwise dominant afternoon. The Panthers have committed more than one turnover in six of their nine games -- five of which were losses; the Saints have lost three of the four games in which they gave the ball away at least twice. Again, something's gotta give between these desperate division rivals. Whoever wins the turnover battle may steal this one.