The Saints are riding low after a terrible performance against the Rams. The Panthers are riding high after holding off the Jets. They'll meet Sunday with the NFC South division title possibly on the line.
It hardly matters that the Saints easily beat Carolina 31-13 in Week 14. If the Panthers return the favor against New Orleans this weekend, Carolina only would have to get past the Falcons in Week 17 and the Panthers' first division title since 2008 would be theirs.
If the Saints, however, could grab a win, they'd own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Panthers, meaning it wouldn't matter what happened in New Orleans' game vs. the Buccaneers in Week 17. The Saints still would be the NFC South champions.
That said, I have more confidence in the Panthers this week, and with the early line set at -3.5, I'm taking Carolina to win this one. Here are three reasons why.
1) The Saints are bad on the road. Though New Orleans is 7-0 at home, the team is 3-4 on the road with stomach-churning losses to the Jets, Seahawks and Rams. Carolina, meanwhile, is tough at home -- its only loss in Charlotte this year came in the form of a 12-7 defeat to Seattle -- and has won its six games there this year by an average of 18.7 points per game. If the recent past is any indication, it could get bad for New Orleans in North Carolina. As Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said Sunday: "We have to play better on the road. That's the stigma on us and we haven't proved anybody wrong."
2) Aside from an off-day vs. the Saints in Week 14, Carolina's defense is the engine that pulls the Panther's squad. We can talk about how well Cam Newton has played this year (and we will below), but if the Panthers front-seven is playing well, Carolina is a tough team to gain yards against, ranking second in the NFL in points given up and yards allowed. Oh, and don't go calling the Panthers secondary the team's weak link. After Santonio Holmes said that in the lead-up to last Sunday's game, Carolina allowed Geno Smith only 167 passing yards while Holmes caught two passes for 14 yards.
3) After an up-and-down sophomore season in 2012, Cam Newton has reminded us again that he's one of the top young quarterbacks in the game. He's cut down on his mistakes (21 touchdowns vs. 11 interceptions) and he's completing 62.3 percent of his passes -- which would be a career high. The team also doesn't have to rely solely on Newton, receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen for its offensive output -- the passing attack is ranked 28th in the league, anyway. Instead, the eighth-ranked Panthers running game, led by DeAngelo Williams (having his most-productive season since 2009), Newton and Mike Tolbert, have given the team enough firepower to potentially win the entire division.
Follow Josh Katzowitz on Google+