Without a doubt, the highlight of Week 16's terrific slate of games will be the contest between two 10-4 teams with a ton to play for: New Orleans and Carolina.
In relatively short order, the Saints have gone from hopeful NFC 1-seed to a potential wild-card team. They were embarrassed on Monday Night Football in Seattle and then decimated last week by a subpar St. Louis team, defeats that have just strengthened the growing perception that the Saints are not the same team on the road as they are at home. Sandwiched between the losses, they did manage an impressive 31-13 home victory over the Panthers.
That defeat aside, this season has held few lows for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and company. The former Heisman Trophy winner and third-year pro has rebounded from a mild sophomore slump to return to the kind of play that made him 2011's Offensive Rookie of the Year. His teammates and coaches have said he is a better leader, and his numbers are consistently strong, if not gaudy. He has amassed 507 yards rushing, and leads all quarterbacks with six touchdowns on the ground. Through the air, his third-down passing rating ranks in the top 10.
But against the Saints and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's exotic blitz packages a couple weeks ago, Newton looked uncomfortable and struggled to find his rhythm. He had only 160 passing yards, which marks his second-worst total for the season.
And yet, for all Newton's potential for pizazz and flash, the Panthers remain above all a dominant defensive team. The Panthers feature a tremendous front seven, including two elite pass-rushers in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, and one of the best young linebackers in Luke Kuechly (last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year). Carolina's defense is stout against both pass and run, ranking fifth and second, respectively. It also ranks second in scoring and in total points allowed, trailing only the historically great Seattle defense.
This week the defense will face the remarkably difficult challenge of defending against Drew Brees. The 34-year-old quarterback is enjoying one of the most productive seasons of his brilliant, Hall of Fame career. Brees is completing an incredible 68.8 percent of his passes, surpassing even Denver QB Peyton Manning, and ranks second in both yards and touchdown passes (34), behind only Manning.
Part of what makes this offense so formidable is the wide range of targets at Brees' disposal. His favorite option may be All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, but rookie Kenny Stills and veterans Lance Moore and Marques Colston all have the potential to go off. And sure, the Saints don't have a reputation as a running team -- in part because that aspect of their offense has been overshadowed by Brees' record-breaking play, but they also don't use their running backs the way other teams do. Both the diminutive but highly explosive Darren Sproles and his backfield mate Pierre Thomas, one of the premier screen-pass options in pro football, are excellent receivers.
There is no one way to stop Brees and this offense, but the most successful formula so far -- as both Seattle and St. Louis demonstrated -- is consistently to disrupt his timing with the pass-rush. The rush doesn't have to reach him, either; merely the threat can occasionally force Brees into early throws or bad decisions. And while the Panthers lead the NFC with 45 sacks, they had only two in their earlier matchup, when Brees tossed four touchdowns.
But neither are Brees and the Saints the same team away from the Superdome. At home they are 7-0 this year, averaging 33 points per game. Maybe it's the weather and being outdoors, or maybe it's the crowd, but on the road New Orleans is 3-4, averaging just 18 points.
If New Orleans wins this week, they clinch the 2-seed and a first-round bye; the Panthers, meanwhile, have to win out if they want to do the same.
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