Prior to this season, only one team in the 17-year history of the NFC South had ever won the division in consecutive seasons. That team was the Carolina Panthers, who won the South each season from 2013 through 2015. This year, the New Orleans Saints have matched that feat, sprinting out to an 11-2 record after topping the South with an 11-5 mark a year ago.
The Saints are in pole position for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and things look especially good for them after the Rams lost to the Eagles on Monday night. They can't quite wrap things up if they defeat the Panthers on Monday, but they can come pretty close while at the same time dealing a near-death blow to Carolina's own playoff chances.
New Orleans comes into the game having rebounded from a dispiriting Thursday night loss to the Cowboys by avenging their Week 1 loss to the division rival Buccaneers, seemingly getting their offense back on track with 17 points in the fourth quarter on their way to victory. The Panthers, meanwhile, have lost five consecutive games, the last four of which have been by just one score. In the process, they've blown their solid playoff positioning and are now on the outside of the postseason picture, looking in.
Can Carolina get back on track? Will New Orleans continue its winning ways? We'll have these answers by the end of the night. What we'll detail below, is what you should be looking out for when the teams take the field.
When the Panthers have the ball
Let's talk about Christian McCaffrey.
Pigeonholed last year as a pure pass-catching back and speed runner, McCaffrey averaged just 12.3 touches per game. Those touches were often far too obvious, as the Panthers liked to have Jonathan Stewart on the field a bunch in order to provide a power, downhill element in the running game. McCaffrey played just south of 70 percent of the snaps, but he rarely touched the ball in the red zone (12 rushes, 11 receptions) and was not given enough opportunities to establish himself as the kind of versatile runner who can make plays everywhere, and not just to the edges of the formation.
This year has been far different. McCaffrey's average is up to 20.4 touches per game, and he has been on the field for 97.5 percent of Carolina's offensive snaps. And McCaffrey's not just gotten more volume. He's also been far more efficient and explosive than he was a year ago. Among the 42 players with 100-plus carries this season, McCaffrey ranks eighth in both yards per carry and Football Outsiders' Success Rate. Last year, he ranked 34th out of 47 in yards per carry and 22nd in Success Rate. Additionally, McCaffrey has 27 plays of 15-plus yards this season (14 catches, 13 runs), compared to just 18 such plays a year ago. That's an additional 15-yard play per game.
McCaffrey also already has 48 touches in the red zone (38 rushes, 10 receptions), and he has scored on 11 of those plays. His effectiveness in close has helped give Carolina the eighth-best red zone touchdown rate (65.3 percent) in the NFL this season, according to Football Outsiders.
The Saints have one of the NFL's toughest run defenses and have shut down several stars on the ground this season, but they have also been extremely vulnerable to passes to players out of the backfield. New Orleans ranks 30th in DVOA on passes to running backs, and has allowed 70 catches for 540 yards and four scores to players at the position. Getting McCaffrey matched up on any linebacker or safety is an almost assured win for the Panthers offense on any given snap -- even against linebackers with speed line those on the Saints' defense.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, Cam Newton appears to be in a bit of a rut right now, presumably due to the shoulder injury he's been battling that has been rumored to necessitate surgery during the offseason.
|Cam Newton||6-2 Start||5 Straight L's|
Newton's target chart has been re-arranged a bit throughout this five-game streak, with Greg Olsen going down for the year with yet another foot injury and youngsters D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel vaulting ahead of Devin Funchess in the pecking order. It's been good for the future of the Panthers' franchise to see Moore and Samuel emerge as more viable options for Newton, but along with their propensity for big plays has come some growing pains as they and Newton learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. (You might remember seeing Newton throw the 5-10 Samuel a couple back-shoulder fades near the end zone the last two weeks, with one getting intercepted and the other falling incomplete. Those are the kinds of throws that should be made to Olsen or Funchess, not Samuel.)
The New Orleans pass defense has improved a lot from the start of the season through the past few weeks, as the secondary has solidified itself around Marshon Lattimore -- for the most part. Teams will still occasionally pick on Eli Apple, but safeties Marcus Williams and Kurt Coleman are playing well, while P.J. Williams is improving (somewhat) in the slot.
When the Saints have the ball
The Panthers have given up more than 30 points per game during this five-game losing streak. The Saints, until getting shut down by the Cowboys a few weeks back, seemed like they could put up 30 in their sleep. They practically sleepwalked through the first three quarters of their win over the Bucs last week, but seemed to wake up when they hung 17 on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter. This week sets up well for them to really get back on track.
Carolina has the NFL's 29th-ranked pass defense this season, per Football Outsiders' DVOA, with particular weaknesses on passes to the perimeter. They've not been good at stopping either short (24th) or deep (29th) passes. Corners James Bradberry and Donte Jackson rank 107th and 99th, respectively, in passer rating allowed among the 152 players who have been targeted at least 30 times in coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
This is the first time these two teams will play each other this season, but the Panthers have a very poor tracking record of slowing down New Orleans' most important offensive players. In five career regular season and postseason games against Carolina, Michael Thomas has posted receiving lines of 5-78-1, 5-68, 7-87-1, 5-70-1, and 8-131. In those game five games, Drew Brees is 139 of 189 for 1,615 yards, 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions, which works out to an absurd 113.5 passer rating. And the Saints are 4-1 in those games. Alvin Kamara was shut down by the Panthers in the playoff matchup last year, but he also exploded for 126 yards and two scores on 14 touches in the teams' Week 13 matchup.
Carolina does not get the kind of relentless pressure that generally bothers Brees, and especially does not tend to get that pressure up the middle, where it is most likely to effect him. (This is what the Cowboys did a few weeks back, with DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory cleaning up off the pressure generated by Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods and company up the middle.) Kawann Short is a fantastic player but he's also generated pressure on only 10 percent of his pass-rushing snaps this season, a slightly below-average rate for a full-time interior defensive lineman.
With Brees likely to have time to sit and step up in the pocket, it seems incredibly likely that he'll be able to pick the Carolina defense apart. When throwing from a clean pocket this season, Brees has an otherworldly 130.8 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus, having completed 76 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns and no picks. If you don't get pressure on him, he is not going to make mistakes, and you are going to lose. Period. (It probably doesn't help Carolina's chances that Brees has the NFL's best passer rating on deep passes and they have allowed the sixth-most deep passing yards in the league so far this season.)
The Panthers' run defense has been better than their pass unit this year, but it may not matter much here. The Saints are one of those teams that can use the short passing game as an extension of the run game, swinging the ball out to Kamara or working the screen game with Mark Ingram, and the Panthers have -- stop me if you've heard this already -- struggled against short passes all season. On throws within five yards of the line of scrimmage, Carolina has allowed a 108.1 passer rating, per Sports Info Solutions, the fourth-worst mark in the league. Given all the Panthers' defensive weaknesses and how well they line up with what the Saints do well, this one seems to tip heavily in favor of New Orleans.
Prediction: Saints 36, Panthers 20