The New Orleans Saints (5-7) continue to be among the most perplexing teams in the NFL. After losing three straight games, the team is coming off the heels of an impressive victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a week before an important divisional matchup with the Carolina Panthers (3-8-1).
New Orleans has had a very up-and-down 2014 season. Entering the season as one of the Super Bowl favorites in the NFC, the Saints lost four of their first six games. They followed that with wins over Green Bay and Carolina by an average of 19.5 points, but then lost three straight games at home, where New Orleans had been dominant under head coach Sean Payton.
A week 13 victory in Pittsburgh, coupled with playing in an extremely weak NFC South, has kept the Saints tied for first place. The Atlanta Falcons currently hold the tiebreaker, but the two teams will meet again in Week 16.
Carolina has struggled throughout the season, but their three wins have somehow kept them in the divisional race. They are just 1.5 games out of first place, and have a game with both the Saints and Falcons remaining on the schedule.
If Sunday’s game goes anything like the last matchup between the two rivals, Carolina’s hopes of making any kind of run to the playoffs will quickly be dashed. Against a pass defense that currently ranks 28th in yards allowed per game (268.4), Cam Newton had his worst game of the season, posting season-lows in passing yards (151), completion percentage (35.7) and passer rating (39.4). Drew Brees completed 24-of-34 passes for 297 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the 28-10 win.
Brees continues to put up big numbers, ranking first in completion percentage (70.3), second in passing yards (3,748) and fifth in touchdowns (27). However, he hasn’t been as effective as he’s been in recent seasons, already throwing just one fewer interception than he did last year. NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport reported on Sunday that the Saints will likely take a quarterback high in the 2015 draft, but Brees has dismissed the idea that the team is already looking for his replacement.
"Something like that -- I know it has absolutely no validity to it," Brees said on Jay Mohr Sports. "A lot of time you can look at who's writing that stuff and you can say 'alright this guy is trying to make a splash or trying to make a name for himself' whatever it might be.
Despite losing seven games as a starter in 2014, Brees might not have much difficulty in the Week 14 matchup. Carolina hasn’t won since Week 4, and six of their eight losses have come by at least 18 points. Las Vegas casinos have New Orleans favored by 9.5 points, and three of the Saints’ five victories have come by double-digits.
Newton’s struggles extend beyond his game against the Saints, as he’s thrown just two more touchdown passes than interceptions, ranking 29th in passer rating (78.9) and 30th in completion percentage (57.9). He’s been plagued by a lack of playmakers, having to rely on rookie Kelvin Benjamin as his top receiver, and running back DeAngelo Williams has played just six games with various injuries.
The Panthers rank 27th in points per game (19.0) and the offense has been especially bad during their six-game losing streak. Carolina is the only team that hasn’t scored more than 21 points in a single game, during that span. The over/under in Sunday’s contest is 49.5 points.
Prediction: New Orleans over Carolina, 31-17