On Sunday the Panthers will square off against hated division rival New Orleans in a match-up that's been marked on the team's calendar since the end of last season, because many Panthers players feel they were disrespected by the Saints when Drew Brees and co. decided to pursue individual records in a game that was out of hand late in the 2nd half. Of course, the Panthers could have done something about it and stopped them from trying to set the records, but I'll admit that it was a little classless to keep throwing it to Graham just so he could get more receiving yards than Rob Gronkowski. However, in the end it proved a fruitless endeavor since Gronk ended up with more yards (1327 yards to Graham's 1310 in case you're scoring at home), so we can at least smile about that.
Panthers fans have griped and complained about the end result of that game for the better part of 9 months, and the Panthers players surely haven't forgotten the embarrassment they felt when they walked off the field in the Superdome last January, so this is a game that both fans and players are pumped up for and can't wait to get started.
Follow me after the jump for five key things to watch for this Sunday when the Panthers take on the Saints and hope to avoid starting the season 0-2 for the fourth straight year. (Yes, it's been that long since we didn't start 0-2.)
1. Can the Panthers contain Jimmy Graham?
This will probably determine whether the Panthers walk out of Bank of America Stadium with a win or a loss on Sunday. Graham is a flat out monster at the Tight End position, and the Panthers have been known to struggle with containing elite Tight Ends in recent history, so preventing Graham from having a stellar day is absolutely the key to success for Ron Rivera and the Panthers' defense.
If we want to see a Panthers victory on Sunday, we can't see any of this:
On a personal note, I hate it when he does that, so if for no other reason I hope the Panthers can keep him in check on Sunday.
2. Can the Panthers' defense maintain momentum from last week?
We saw a marked improvement in the defense against Tampa Bay, and if the Panthers want to win this game against New Orleans we're going to have to see the defense carry that momentum with them into The Bank. While Bucs rookie RB Doug Martin was able to rush for a game-sealing first down late in the 4th quarter, the Panthers were able to hold him for under 100 yards (sure, he rushed for 95, but improvement is improvement).
The key to the Panthers defensive momentum is the return of LB's Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, who both provided a major spark to the rest of the unit with their solid play, like the one below from Davis that forced the Bucs to kick a FG instead of adding a touchdown in the 2nd quarter last Sunday:
I'm glad to see Thomas Davis back on the field. It's great to see him playing again, and even better to see him playing at such a high level because the defense will definitely benefit from his presence on the field.
3. Can the Panthers' Offensive Line hold up?
I don't want to remember the abysmal performance from the O-Line last week. I don't want to re-hash that atrocious wad of horribleness here because I don't want to induce vomiting from any of our valued readership. I love you guys too much to put you through any flashbacks of what happened with our O-Line against the Bucs. The last thing we need is someone to snap and start typing nonsensical ramblings in all-caps, so for your sake all I'm going to say about it is this: if the O-Line plays against the Saints like they did last week against the Bucs; it's going to be a long, horrible day.
We can't see any of this on Sunday and expect the offense to thrive:
Note to the OL: you're supposed to get in the way of those guys trying to tackle the running back. It's kinda/sorta your job.
4. Can the Panthers' rushing attack make an impact?
Let's face the facts: the Panthers didn't get the job done on the ground last Sunday. Part of it is due to the fact that Jonathan Stewart wasn't in the lineup, part of it was because the Bucs defense was in the backfield before the ground attack could get revved up, and part of it was because the offensive play calling was...well, offensive.
If the Panthers are planning to come away with the win this week, the ground game has to make a difference. The best way to contain Drew Brees is to keep him on the sideline, and if the Panthers stable of running backs can ground and pound the Saints defense into oblivion while draining those ever precious seconds off the clock, they will succeed in preventing Brees and the Saints from marching right on into the end zone. (I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist a "When the Saints Go Marching In" pun. I won't do it again, I promise.)
So, in order to keep Breesus on the pine, the Three Headed Monster needs to do this:
And Stew, while you're running up and down the field you can add a few stiff-arms to your collection if you want. I'm sure none of us would mind.
5. Can Cam Newton avoid critical mistakes?
The Panthers are 0-10 when Cam Newton throws an interception. We've all heard that narrative way too many times, but it's true. The Panthers haven't won a game yet when Cam throws one to the other team. Of course, we all know that this won't continue forever; but the fewer mistakes Newton makes, the greater chance the Panthers have of winning. In point #4 I mentioned that the best way to beat Drew Brees is to keep him off the field, and Cam not throwing interceptions is one way to accomplish the mission of "don't let Brees beat you".
As much as we want to hope that the Panthers come in and crush the Saints, in reality this game is most likely going to be a dog fight from start to finish. If the Panthers want to be 1-1 on Monday, they're going to have to win the turnover battle, and that starts with Newton.
Hopefully Cam can limit his mistakes and not make any throws into triple or quadruple coverage against the Saints' secondary like he tried to do last week against the Bucs, because as we witnessed last week with Cam's first interception; the replacement refs haven't grasped the concept of pass interference.
And there you have it, folks: five keys to the Panthers/Saints tilt that could determine whether we celebrate the sweet taste of victory or spit out the bitterness of defeat. Hopefully, for our sake, it's the former.
Now it's time for you to chime in Panther Nation. What are your keys to the game on Sunday? Let's hear what you have to say!
Photo Credits: Derick Hingle, Kim Klement, Michael Bennett, and Chuck Cook | US Presswire