First place in the NFC South and the No. 2 seed are at stake as the Carolina Panthers host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
Drew Brees and the Saints (10-4) currently own the head-to-head advantage after torching Carolina 31-13 in Week 14, ending their eight-game win streak. But New Orleans slip up in last week’s 27-16 surprising letdown to St. Louis has them in danger of slipping back to a wild card spot.
Carolina (10-4) and Cam Newton could get the inside track on the second first-round bye in the franchise’s relatively short history with a win after starting the season 1-3. Since then, the Panthers have won nine of their last 10 games, including significant victories over San Francisco and New England, averaging 25.4 points and with a defense holding opponents to 15 points and just 84.9 rushing yards per game.
The Panthers last earned a first-round bye in the 1996 season when they came within one victory of the Super Bowl, losing to eventual champion Green Bay. The Panthers haven't made the postseason since 2008.
Newton suffered a toe injury on the final play of the first half of Carolina’s 30-20 victory over the New York Jets last week but he is still expected to start. The 24-year-old is completing a career high 62.3 percent of his passes, and should set new career marks in touchdown passes and passer rating.
Carolina did have some concerns regarding Newton’s top target and leading receiver Steve Smith, but the veteran is still expected to play despite a dislocated left middle finger.
New Orleans' third-ranked secondary stunted Newton to 160 yards passing and one touchdown, while sacking him five times for a loss 49 yards, so Carolina may have to keep the defense grounded with running back DeAngelo Williams and Newton. The pair has combined for 1,250 yards and eight touchdowns, and Carolina is eighth in the NFL with 129.4 rushing yards per game.
However, the Saints might be down second-string safety Rafael Bush, who sat out Wednesday and Thursday’s practices with an ankle injury.
Down by 14 after two uncharacteristic first quarter interceptions from Brees, the Saints could only manage three points in the first half against St. Louis. They wouldn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, and that was a rare rushing score from Brees. It was the first time all season New Orleans was denied a trip to the end zone in the first half.
Brees has especially struggled on the road this season, throwing seven of his 10 interceptions with an 86.4 passer rating in opposing stadiums compared to a 73.2 completion percentage and 122.5 rating at home.
In the previous meeting, Brees lit up the Panthers for four touchdown passes, two apiece for receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham.
The typically dynamic tandem of Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas were held to 45 total rushing yards by the Rams. Ankle injuries and a concussion may have taken their toll on Sproles, while leading rusher Thomas hasn’t totaled more than 80 all-purpose yards in the last three games. Neither has scored a touchdown since the Week 10 blowout win over Dallas.
Based off the team’s official site, Carolina’s second-ranked defense has no injuries to worry about. Linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the team with 122 tackles and three interceptions followed by linebacker Thomas Davis’s 103 tackles, and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s 11 passes defended.
Betting Odds: Carolina favored by 3 points.
Over/Under: 47 points
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Online Stream Info: NFL Sunday Ticket
Prediction: Carolina 34, New Orleans 20