Two of the NFC’s top three teams play in the same division. On "Sunday Night Football," the clubs will square off with sole possession of first place on the line.
In Week 14, the New Orleans Saints are scheduled to host the Carolina Panthers. Both teams are tied at 9-3 atop the NFC South for the No.2 seed in the conference. It’s the first of two meetings between the rivals in 2013.
The game might be more important for the Panthers. To complete the regular season, the teams are set to play each other twice, as well as two other teams with losing records. If they end up splitting their head-to-head matchups and finishing at 12-4, New Orleans will win the division. The Saints own the tiebreaker because they have a better conference record.
The Saints have the advantage on Sunday, since the game will be played at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Sean Payton's squad is undefeated at home, and that is reflected in the betting line, which has New Orleans favored by 3.5 points. Under Payton, the Saints haven’t lost against the point spread in front of their home fans since 2010.
The Panthers, though, have been one of the best teams in the NFL, following three losses in their first four games. They are undefeated in eight consecutive games, and have been dominant in their victories. Five of those wins have come by at least 15 points, and they failed to cover the spread just once. The streak includes wins against the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, who are a combined 17-7.
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Cam Newton has silenced many doubters during this recent run. His 61.7 completion percentage and 88.1 quarterback rating are career highs, and he’s on pace to set a personal best for passing touchdowns. However, it has been the Carolina defense that has propelled them to being one of the Super Bowl favorites. The Panthers rank first with 13.1 points allowed per game, and second in rushing defense.
In their most recent loss, the Saints were able to muster very little offense against a dominant Seattle Seahawks defense. Drew Brees threw for a season-low 147 yards and completed less than two touchdown passes for just the third time this season.
"The fact of the matter is, we took one in the chin today. We got outplayed today," Brees said after the Saints loss to the Seahawks. "They played great. They made a lot of plays and we didn't. They deserve a lot of credit both defensively and offensively for the way they played they were certainly well prepared. This is a tough atmosphere to come in and play, but obviously we are much better team then what we put on the field today."
Sunday, though, could be a different story for Brees. At home, his passer rating is almost 35 points higher. He’s also thrown nine more touchdowns and two less interceptions.
The New Orleans offense might be more equipped to face the Carolina defense, rather than the Seattle defense, which sports the best secondary in football. The Panthers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week Two, but most of the Saints offense comes through the air. Mark Ingram’s 145-yard performance against the Dallas Cowboys was the only time a Carolina rusher has surpassed the century mark.
The Panthers might benefit from having more rest. They’ve had an extra day to prepare because New Orleans ended Week 13 in a Monday game. After the loss, the team’s plane broke down, and they were forced to stay in Seattle until Tuesday.
"I would like to hope it gives us a little bit of an advantage," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said about the extra day off. "But then again, it's really how you prepare more than anything else."
It’s the fourth time in five weeks that New Orleans will play in primetime. The Panthers are 2-0 when playing in front of a national audience.
Betting Odds: New Orleans -3.5, 45.5
Prediction: New Orleans 27, Carolina 23