The Carolina Panthers are just nine months removed from playing in Super Bowl 50, but their playoff hopes for the 2016 NFL season are hanging by a thread. The defending NFC champions find themselves in a virtual “must-win” situation in Week 11 when they host the New Orleans Saints on “Thursday Night Football.”
Carolina remained in the basement of the NFC South with a devastating Week 10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that put them at 3-6 on the year. The Panthers blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, and their chances of rebounding from a slow start to make the postseason are looking extremely slim.
New Orleans finds itself in a similar situation. The Saints were defeated by the Denver Broncos on Sunday, even though they had a chance to take the lead with an extra point with less than 90-seconds remaining in regulation. New Orleans is just one game ahead of Carolina in the division, and they could have trouble defeating the Panthers for a second time this season.
The Saints got the better of the Panthers earlier this season, winning 41-38 at the Superdome in Week 6. New Orleans came back from a 21-0 deficit to win in a shootout, and their best chance of defeating Carolina is to make Thursday’s game another high-scoring affair that puts the final score past the over/under of 51.5.
Averaging 29.4 points per game, the Saints have the NFL’s No. 2 scoring offense. They have scored at least 35 points in three of their four victories, and Drew Brees is tied for the league lead with 24 touchdown passes. New Orleans, however, has trouble winning when their offense struggles, going 0-3 when being held to 23 points or less.
Despite the result of their first matchup this season, there are a few reasons to believe Carolina will be able to limit New Orleans’ ability to move the ball. The Saints have dominated the mediocre and below-average defenses on their schedule, but that hasn’t been the case when they’ve faced top competition.
New Orleans has taken on four of the NFL’s top 11 scoring defenses, and each of those teams—the Broncos, Chiefs, Seahawks and Giants—have held the Saints to 25 points or fewer. Carolina ranks 23rd in points allowed, but the unit could be a top 10 defense for the remainder of the season. Ever since they lost to the Saints, the Panthers’ defense has resembled the one that made last year’s Super Bowl.
The Panthers have surrendered 16.7 points per game in the last three weeks, but that doesn’t even tell the story of how good Carolina has been. The team has 15 sacks during that span, which is more than three teams have on the entire season. The Chiefs only totaled 256 yards of offense in their win over the Panthers on Sunday, and Carolina hasn’t allowed any running back to rush for more than 61 yards since Week 5.
Carolina’s offense isn’t what it was a year ago, but Cam Newton and Co. shouldn’t have much trouble moving the ball against the Saints. New Orleans ranks 30th by allowing 29.4 points per contest, and the Panthers have feasted on bad defenses. In the three games that Newton has started against a team that ranks outside of the top 10 in points allowed, Carolina is averaging 39 points.
With just three days’ rest in between games, the Thursday night contests usually aren’t very competitive. In six of the last seven Thursday night games, the favorite has won by at least 12 points. The Panthers are four-point favorites at Las Vegas and online sportsbooks, via OddsShark, and they have a good chance to continue the recent trend.
Prediction: Carolina over New Orleans, 35-23