The Carolina Panthers face their biggest game of the season when they host the New Orleans Saints in Week 16. It's a game that will define the 2013 season. Win and the playoffs are secured, along with a possibility to win the NFC South, lose and the door remains open to miss the postseason all together.
Pulling the Saints out of New Orleans is the first battle, already won by Carolina. There's no doubt the Saints are one of the strongest teams in the league on home turf, but they're decidedly weaker away from it -- typified by a surprise loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 15.
It's exceedingly annoying, but credit where it's due to Drew Brees. Two games remain in the regular season and he's already thrown for 4,500 yards and 34 touchdowns. When these teams last met on Sunday Night Football he threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns in a dominant performance.
New Orleans is so dangerous because of its host of weapons. Cover one receiver and Brees will find another, have both blanketed and the offense will audible into a short pass to Darren Sproles. This is where the Saints can damage Carolina, putting the pressure on the team's secondary and outside linebackers to cover the speedy running back in space.
Terron Armstead is the player to watch. The rookie left tackle is tasked with stopping Greg Hardy in his first start, creating the game's most important matchup. Armstead will give up position in traditional passing plays, but he is athletic and gifted at moving in space. New Orleans may have tipped its hand early. The switch speaks to a desire to stretch Carolina on outside plays and channel more of the offense through Sproles, having Armstead pull.
On the other side it's about whether the offensive line can keep Cam Newton upright. He was pressured throughout the last meeting, particularly from Junior Gallette, who dominated Byron Bell in the last matchup.
The Saints defense is aggressive, sometimes to its detriment. A conservative, clock controlling gameplan is the right move -- provided Newton can be held upright. Take a look back to the San Diego Chargers when they defeated Denver. Their gameplan was to keep Peyton Manning off the field, and it worked. The same needs to happen here.
Ultimately this is an area the Saints have the edge. They are better positioned to have big plays, and possess the better passing quarterback. However, this isn't where the game will be won.
The Carolina Panthers are without Jonathan Stewart, but still dominate this aspect to the game. DeAngelo Williams is finding his footing after a dominant performance against New York, and can continue his impressive run this week. Pair this with Mike Tolbert's ability to play the role of power back and it's too much for the Saints.
There isn't a single player to be concerned with in New Orleans' committee. Pierre Thomas is the team's most successful rusher, but nobody has averaged over 5.0 yards per carry -- including Sproles. Up against the Panthers' run defense it's hard to imagine them making an impact.
Away from home and in a hostile environment it's hard to picture the Saints being quite as effective as they were when the team's last met. Pair this with a must-win game for Carolina and there's plenty of motivation to give the home town a show.
Sproles will have success in the screen game, but this is one small aspect. I don't have a lot of faith in Armstead being able to consistently block Hardy and that will make life uncomfortable for Brees.
Carolina Panthers 27, New Orleans Saints 23