New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints were favored in three of their four losses. Reuters/Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers have not gotten off to the start they had hoped for in the 2014 NFL season, as both teams have recorded three wins and four losses. Despite their struggles, the two rivals will meet on "Thursday Night Football" in Week 9 with first place on the line.

Halfway through the season, the NFC South has proven to be the worst division in football. No team has a winning record through eight weeks, and a tie has helped give the Panthers a half-game lead.

New Orleans was expected to be among the top Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. Their late-game execution, though, has kept them below .500. Three of their four defeats have come by a field goal or less, and all but one loss was decided by a score in the final two minutes.

Many of the Saints’ struggles remain the same as last season, when they went 11-5 and made the playoffs. While New Orleans remains unbeaten at home, they’ve yet to get a win on the road. For whatever reason, the Saints are a different team away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints looked impressive on Sunday, beating the five-win Packers, 44-23, after Green Bay had averaged more than 36 points a game over a four-week stretch. Now, New Orleans has to prove that they can do the same on the road.

Luckily for the Saints, the Panthers haven’t had much of a home-field advantage. Their most recent game was a home loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and they were blown out in front of their fans in Week 3.

Sunday’s loss notwithstanding, the Panthers didn’t even come close in their first three losses, falling by a combined 67 points. Since Week 2, Carolina’s only win has come against the Chicago Bears, who’ve lost four of their last five games.

Carolina should be getting back an important player for the Week 9 tilt. DeAngelo Williams says he’s ready to get back on the field, after missing four straight games with a sprained ankle.

Without Williams, the Panthers’ running game struggled mightily, ranking 27th on the season in rushing yards per game. They’ve surpassed the 100-yard mark in the last three contests, but that’s largely a result of Cam Newton’s ability to use his legs. Leading rusher Jonathan Stewart hasn’t totaled more than 79 yards in a game, and Darrin Reaves is averaging just 2.4 yards on his 32 carries.

Even though the Panthers hold sole possession of first place, the results of Week 8 have made them the underdogs. The betting odds at many Las Vegas casinos have Carolina getting 1.5 points, but they are getting as many as 2.5 points at some sports books. The over/under is 48 total points.

Prediction: Carolina is no better than a mediocre football team, but New Orleans has proven that they are not to be trusted on the road, even when they are playing well. Getting back Williams should help improve the Panthers’ offense, and the Saints aren’t as explosive when playing outdoors.

Predicted Score: Carolina 26, New Orleans 23