Happy hump day Panther faithful! As glorious as the victory in the desert was it's now time to kick the dust off our boots, and get ready to put on our galoshes for a trip down to the Bayou. Of course, I'm referring to the Carolina Panthers (3-4) division matchup with the New Orleans Saints (7-0) at the Superdome this weekend.
Nothing makes a resident optimist happier than seeing a fan base with a glimmer of hope in their collective eyes. It has become abundantly clear that numerous members of the CSR community see this game as a very winnable contest for the Carolina Panthers. While our strengths do match up quite well against the Saints, by no means should we assume this game is going to be a cakewalk and line up for our Mardi Gras beads just yet. It's going to be a very hard fought game between these division rivals (as NFC South contests always are) and this is when we'll know for sure if the Panthers have a shot, albeit a slim one, at securing the Wild Card, or whether this season is destined for mediocrity.
On the Panthers' end, the key is this: Which Carolina Panthers team will show up? The dominant, snarling Panther we saw in Glendale or the mild, placid kitty cat we saw against Buffalo. This week we need Mr. Hyde to be front and center, and hope Dr. Jekyll stays in Charlotte.
More after the jump...
These ain't your Daddy's ‘aints
The collective 2008 post-season and 2009 pre-season chatter surrounding the New Orleans Saints was this:
"Imagine what they'd be like if they had a defense, any defense"
Well, New Orleans found themselves a defense. Is it truly a top tier squad? Absolutely not, but it's good enough to hold their opponents to an average of 22 points per game. When you offense is averaging 39 points a game it is abundantly clear why this team is 7-0.
New Orleans run offense vs. Carolina run defense.
In 2008 the modus operandi for stopping the Saints offense was simply, rush Drew Brees and have your secondary step up. Their running game was non existent, so teams were able to key in on the pass; in 2009 this is a different story.
The Saints running game has been even better than their passing game averaging a 4th best 153.3 yards per game on the ground. They are utilizing a true three headed monster with Mike Bell (392 yards, 2 TD), Pierre Thomas (405 yards, 4 TD) and Reggie Bush (178 yards, 4 TD). Bush is also the team's 4th best receiving option.
The Carolina run defense has been vastly improved the past couple of weeks with the signing of Hollis Thomas proving to be a vital turning point in the success of our LBs against the run. He is allowing for Jon Beason to make more plays and get past the line. The Panther's stellar linebackers will need to stop the run before it starts to allow for our secondary to hold the receivers. If we are forced to bring Chris Harris up in run support too much, our corners are likely overmatched by the prowess of the Saints passing attack. As good as New Orleans have been at using their stable of backs, I just don't see them being able to break big gains in Ron Meeks ‘bend but don't break' system. However, they have been very successful in the past.
KEY MATCHUP: New Orleans passing offense vs. Carolina passing defense
Here it is folks, the key matchup of the week. Last week this very same matchup vs. Arizona was the matchup of the week in the hump day prognostication, and I think we can all agree it was our secondary and pass rush that made the difference in that game.
It's no different here. Drew Brees is truly a dynamic quarterback and no matter how many times he stares down his receivers, or fails to look off the safety, week in, week out, he burns teams for an average of 289 yards, 1.9 TD and a rating of 97.35 each game since joining the Saints. Yes, he's that good.
As we all know, however, a quarterback in nothing without his receivers; and the Saints have receivers in spades. While Marqus Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore may not be as flashy names as the corps we saw last week (Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston) they have been more effective as a group in 2009., combining (along with TE Jeremy Shockey) for 1431 yards and 11 touchdowns. Couple this with pass catching RB Reggie Bush and its clear why this team has been so effective throwing the ball.
Then we come to the Carolina pass defense, your Carolina Panthers' pass defense, the NFL's #1 pass defense. Starting up front Julius Peppers is playing like a man possessed and hurrying throws, Thomas Davis has been shutting down some of the best tight ends in the league all season, and while Gamble and Marshall are not stellar corners, they always seem to come up big when needed. The true question for the secondary this week is what role our ‘X-Factor' will play, of course I'm talking about Sherrod Martin whose scintillating play vs. Arizona proved he can be the playmaker in the secondary we need across from Chris Harris. Last week I gave the edge to Arizona, and my Panthers proved me wrong so this week I'm not going to make the same mistake.
Carolina rushing offense vs. New Orleans rushing defense
New Orleans' defense is much improved, no doubt about that. But what team in the NFL can stop Carolina's run when Double Trouble get the ball? Arizona's #1 rush defense tried valiantly, but we busted their season average four and a half times over. The Saints have some serviceable linebackers with Jonathan Vilma, but with Sedrick Ellis out there is just no way New Orleans can contain Double Trouble
Carolina passing offense vs. New Orleans passing defense
Last week Jake Delhomme proved he isn't done... not quite yet. When Jeff Davidson calls up a game plan where it isn't incumbent upon Jake to win the game with his arm we have a chance. A lot of this week's passing attack will depend on how Davidson calls the plays, but even at our best this New Orleans secondary led by Darren Sharper have 16 team interceptions on the season, five of them being returned for touchdowns. They allow yards, but also make big plays. It will be tough for Carolina through the air this week.
Edge: New Orleans
There's no sugar coating Carolina's special teams performances in 2009; absolutely, positively, bonafide pathetic. Our total kick return average (returns and punts) is a meager 18.7 yards while allowing a 32.3 yard average.
Conversely, New Orleans are averaging 25 yards per return and allowing 25.9 yards. They're better than us; it's as simple as that.
Edge: New Orleans
If you've read about the New Orleans coaching staff then it's likely you've heard the story of head coach Sean Payton giving $250,000 of his salary to defensive coordinator Greg Williams to lure him to New Orleans. While it makes for a great story it also galvanizes their coaching squad. New Orleans is a very good, very consistently coached football team.
While I think the potential ceiling for Carolina in higher on the coaching front, our coaches have also been wildly inconsistent and unable to make appropriate halftime adjustments. We could see a run heavy, dynamic offense like we did last week... or we could see a vanilla, poorly schemed pass-fest like we have seen in the past. It's difficult to judge how Carolina will be coached this week, but I'll take consistency over potential any day.
Edge: New Orleans
It's going to be a hard fought battle in the dome on Sunday. Predicting an NFC South matchup is like picking the lottery, you just never know how these teams will perform against each other. What I do know, however, is that this game means far more to the Carolina Panthers than it does the New Orleans Saints. We saw last week vs. Arizona exactly what can happen when this team has something tangible to play for, like pride.
Sunday's game is the make or break game for the season and we have to win it if we hope to gain ground on Atlanta who plays Washington this week. I think we see a fiery, inspired Carolina defense and Davidson realizes that he needs to run the ball to keep his job.
Carolina Panthers 31 - New Orleans Saints 28