Let me start by thanking you guys for not heading over to the Saints blog and trolling them, as always you keep it classy.
Judging from comments on the offensive preview there seems to be a belief that the Saints wont rest their starters for want of trying in vain to win home field, I really don't see this happening despite what Sean Payton wants the media to believe. This isn't the Saints' game to lose, the 49ers are in the driver's seat and only need to get past a divisional opponent in the Rams who can't score more than 12 points a game, and who they shut out 26-0 the last time they played. The only way the Saints play Brees and Co. for a full game is if they still want to work on self-aggrandizement, which seems to be one of their strong points. However, I just don't see them being foolish enough to risk their starters for more than a half. Let me save Saints' fans the time and effort of their yammering to fully admit we can't stop Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints offense, however I don't believe we'll be seeing them for much of the game.
X-Factor: Pierre Thomas
One thing the Saints will need heading into the playoffs is a stout running game, and this will be a perfect opportunity to try and get Pierre Thomas some more carries to build some momentum. Since decidedly mediocre rookie Mark Ingram went down with injury Thomas has stepped in to the lineup and made a major impact. In three straight weeks he's run the ball well, albeit for only a few carries. It seems surprising the Saints waited this long to give him chances as their premiere back, but he's there now. I believe the Saints will give a heavy dose of Thomas to the Panthers run defense while they ease out the rest of their starters.
In recent weeks the Panthers have been holding much better RBs than Pierre Thomas to poor days. Defensive rotation coupled with the emergence of hungry backup DTs has created a situation where Carolina are not nearly as porous against the run as they were earlier in 2011. That being said, I'm not confident enough to say with certainty that the Panthers can stop the Saints, no more than I can say Thomas will carry his team.
Carolina pass defense Vs. New Orleans pass offense
This one should be fairly easy to judge. With Brees on the field this is no contest, without him I think it's a fairly even affair. I have no doubts that Chris Gamble can, and will nullify Marques Colston, however we don't have reliable answers in the secondary for the remaining compliment of receivers. Adding Jimmy Graham to the mix only makes this more lopsided, even if Chase Daniel is throwing the ball.
There's good reason why we're talking about the need to draft corners and safties this April, and this weekend's game will show it.
Carolina run defense Vs. New Orleans run offense
I'm not really concerned with Pierre Thomas, but I am worried about Darren Sproles. RBs like Sproles with speed and utility are precisely what the Panther struggle with, especially without good lateral speed from their linebackers. Like Brees I don't think Sproles winds up playing a full game, but still he's a player to be concerned with in all phases.
Much like the passing game I think Sproles can hurt the Panthers in a short amount of time, and that's why I think they have to be given the nod here.
This is a hard game to really call because so much hinges on how New Orleans' approaches the game. If they are looking to hold down stats and run up the yards then it's unlikely the Panthers and their injury decimated defense can hold back the floodgates, but if they choose to turn back the dial on any of their players I think this is a wholly winnable game.
Last time these two teams met the Saints were only able to win by three points. Since that time the Panthers have gained more confidence and learned to win, which is vital for a young team. Here I'm picking with my heart, not my head.
Panthers 35 - Saints 31