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NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT
While the Carolina Panthers have been calling every game their "most important game" for about six weeks now, the matchup that received the most hype and attention came in Week 14. It did not go well for the Panthers. In a battle for the NFC South lead, Carolina was crushed in New Orleans, 31-13 in front of a national television audience.
On Sunday, the two teams will meet for a rematch in Charlotte, with the division lead up for grabs again.
"We really got embarrassed a couple weeks ago and this is an opportunity to prove to ourselves that we are who we think we are," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday.
Carolina's win over the Jets combined with the Saints loss in St. Louis last week evened the NFC South's leaders up at 10-4. If New Orleans finishes off a sweep Sunday, they will clinch the division. If the Panthers win, they would most likely still need to beat Atlanta in the season finale to take the NFC South and a first-round playoff bye that will come with it.
With two weeks left in the regular season, the Panthers could end up earning a No. 1, 2, 5 or 6 seed. But a disastrous finish could also see them miss out on the postseason completely.
"The only thing I do see is it's about winning, and every time we do win we get closer to it," head coach Ron Rivera said, when asked if he is looking at playoff possibilities. "I'm trying to stay focused and I won't talk about it. I want to focus on the next game."
That next game is against an offense that piled up the most points and yards against the Panthers 2nd-ranked defense. Saints quarterback Drew Brees faced limited pressure while throwing for 313 yards and four touchdowns. But his offensive line has been shaken up since then.
Not only was New Orleans left tackle Charles Brown benched last week against the Rams, but he also lost his starting spot. The Saints will start Terron Armstead Sunday, a rookie from Arkansas Pine-Bluff who has taken just 17 snaps - all on special teams - this season.
When he was told he would be going against a rookie this weekend, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy asked, "What happened to the last guy?"
Hardy had just gotten in from practice and had not heard about the switch yet, but replacing Brees' blind side blocker this late in the season, in a game with this much at stake, is a gutsy move by Saints coach Sean Payton.
It is also a move that could make the rematch drastically different from the first affair. With their talented defensive line unable to provide enough pressure, the Panthers saw their secondary picked apart by Brees. But if their line can get to the future Hall of Famer this time, Carolina has a much better chance slowing down the potent New Orleans offense.
"I feel like we're going to come out this week and win. That's what we do. We're going to show up. I have full confidence in my team," Hardy said. "You know me, I'm going to work my behind off in practice and come out and dominate like I normally do. They should probably be ready for a battle."
Not only will the Saints have a new-look offensive line, but they are a much different team when not at home. They have won all seven of their games at the Superdome this year, but they are just 3-4 on the road.
The Panthers, meanwhile, improved to 6-1 at home last week with a 30-20 win over the Jets. Before that game, New York wide receiver Santonio Holmes called the Carolina secondary the team's "weakest link." Judging by their performance in Week 14 against the Saints, Holmes was not wrong. But it was not the smartest thing to say.
The Panthers held Holmes to just two catches for 14 yards, while cornerback Captain Munnerlyn ran back his 5th-career interception for a touchdown.
Now Munnerlyn and company feel they have something to prove for the second week in a row.
"I feel we didn't play our best football against (the Saints). I don't need anybody to call me out and make me play the way I did (against the Jets)," Munnerlyn said. "We've just got to play all lights-out and communicate with each other. I think it's going to be a totally different game plan and we're going to go out there and execute, and we're going to win the game."
If Munnerlyn is right, the Panthers will have a chance to lock up their first division title in Week 17 against the Falcons, in what would be yet again their most important game.
SERIES HISTORY: 38th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 19-18. If the Saints win Sunday, it will continue a pattern of sweeps in the series. New Orleans has won five of the last seven match-ups, including a 31-13 victory in Week 14. The Panthers have not beaten the Saints when Sean Payton has been the head coach and quarterback Drew Brees has started the game since Week 17 of 2008.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES
--The Panthers playoff picture for Week 16 looks like this: They clinch at least a wild card with a win over the Saints, or if they tie, they would get in with a loss by the Cardinals or 49ers. If Carolina loses, they can still clinch a postseason spot if Arizona and San Francisco both lose.
--When the Panthers started their Week 14 game in New Orleans, they were 4th in the league with a 63.2 percent red zone touchdown rate. But after converting one of their two red zone chances against the Saints, and just one of their five trips inside the 20 against the Jets, Carolina's 55 percent red zone touchdown rate now ranks them 16th.
"You're not going to beat good teams, you're not going to make a playoff run kicking field goals," tight end Greg Olsen said.
"We're usually pretty good down there in the red zone. These last two weeks for whatever reason just sputtered a little bit. We'll get it addressed. We know it's something we have to work on."
--The Panthers have scored three defensive touchdowns this season, tying a single-season record, accomplished six other times.
--Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis is in the midst of a career year, an incredible accomplishment considering he is believed to be the first NFL player to come back from three ACL surgeries.
But the nine-year veteran has also made a huge imprint off the field, and on Tuesday the Panthers nominated Davis as their candidate for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
"I have had the pleasure of watching Thomas Davis grow into the confident mature, caring man he is today," Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said in a statement. "No one takes his position of influence more seriously than Thomas on the field or in the community.
"He is a leader who is unselfish with his time and energy to help those around him, whether that is the younger players on the team or the youth in the Carolinas. He is committed in to his profession, his family and his charity work. and that is why he has made our community a better place to live."
Each NFL team selects a player for their community service as well as their play on the field. A team captain, Davis has already set a career high for sacks and he is on pace to rack up the most tackles in his career.
Davis also runs the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation which helps underprivileged youth and their families. This past summer, he donated $60,000 to build a playground in his hometown of Shellman, Ga.
He is also involved in the NFL Play60 program and is a spokesman for a heart health testing program for local student-athletes.
BY THE NUMBERS: 6 -- Number of wins in seven home games for the Panthers this season. In their previous 18 years, Carolina was 72-72 at home.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know if the schedule makers could have asked for a better situation as far as we're concerned. It's coming down for a real big weekend." -- head coach Ron Rivera, on the tight NFC playoff race.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--CB Captain Munnerlyn has returned five of his seven career interceptions for touchdowns, the highest percentage in NFL history among players with five or more interceptions.
--LB Thomas Davis has racked up 103 tackles, 10 away from his career high set in 2008. The nine-year veteran, who was the first NFL player to return from three ACL surgeries, has already set career bests this season with four sacks and seven pass deflections.
--DE Charles Johnson, who has nine sacks, needs one more to join former DEs Julius Peppers and Kevin Greene as the only Panthers to record double-digit sacks in three seasons.
--QB Cam Newton has combined to pass for 89 passing and rushing touchdowns, second only to former Dolphins QB Dan Marino (100) for the most by a QB in his first three years. Newton has already equaled his career high of 21 touchdowns, set in his rookie season.
--RB DeAngelo Williams, who missed Week 13 with a bruised quad, has already received his most carries (179) and receptions (23) since 2009.
--TE Greg Olsen, who has 63 receptions, has tied former Panthers TE Wesley Walls for second-most catches in team history by a tight end. Olsen set team and career records last year with 69 receptions and 843 receiving yards.
--WR Steve Smith "jammed" a finger near the end of Wednesday's practice and was listed as limited. Head coach Ron Rivera does not think the injury was serious.
--RB Jonathan Stewart, who suffered an MCL tear in Week 14, did not practice Wednesday and will not play Sunday. The Panthers do not know if will be able to return for Week 17.
--TE Greg Olsen, who has been dealing with a foot injury since midseason, did not practice Wednesday. He is not expected to miss the Saints game.
For the Panthers defense, it's relatively simple - they need to pressure Saints quarterback Drew Brees much more than they did in Week 14. This is a defense that has been able to thrive by rushing with its front four while keeping its blitzing to a minimum. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott does not want to get burned by blitzing Brees too much, but when he dialed up the pressure in the second half of the first meeting, Carolina was able to slow down the Saints offense a bit.
The Panthers had early chances to take a nice-sized lead a couple weeks ago, but they came away with just two field goals on their first two drives. They have to do better in the red zone, and they have to run the ball much better than they did down in New Orleans. Quarterback Cam Newton did not play well after the Panthers dug themselves in a hole, but that also had to do with a shaky line that allowed Newton to get sacked five times. Carolina has their division rivals right where they want them - in Charlotte with the division title on the line - and if the Panthers are going to take their next step toward relevance, they will need a smart and solid game from Newton.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers DE Greg Hardy, who has eight sacks this season, vs. Saints LT Terron Armstead, who will be making his first NFL start -- Hardy did not have a good game in New Orleans, but he will not have to go against benched LT Charles Brown again. His replacement, Armstead, has been inactive for 10 games this season, and the Saints are showing an awful lot of faith on a rookie who has not taken a single offensive snap.
--Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams, who was held to 52 yards on 13 carries in Week 14, vs. the Saints 21st-ranked run defense -- The 30-year-old Williams seemingly found a fountain of youth against the Jets last week, totaling 168 yards, his third-highest output since 2009. His 81 rushing yards were the most he has had since Week 3, and with RB Jonathan Stewart sidelined again with an MCL injury, Williams could once again get on a roll while receiving the bulk of carries.
The Saints have been tough to pass on, as evidenced by their No. 3 ranking in passing yards against, but they are not as stingy on the ground.