Panthers vs. Saints: Sunday Night Football preview

Chris Graythen

This is the big one.

The importance of Sunday Night Football can't be overstated. It's a vital game for a hundred reasons, least of which is that the winner takes control of the NFC South. At a macro level it's about the Panthers asserting they can handle an elite offense, which is vital in projecting where this team goes in the playoffs.

Cam Newton vs. Drew Brees will be the national perspective, likely with some hack-kneed reference to Auburn beating Alabama. Team records could be tied, but there's a distinct feeling the Panthers are the underdog, purely by virtue of being asked to do something they haven't before.

Passing game

Two weeks ago this would be a few sentence description. The Panthers pass well enough, but lets not kid ourselves that the air offense is elite, or even close to what New Orleans is capable of. Drew Brees is annoyingly accurate under center, and frustratingly quick at getting the ball away just before a pass rusher reaches him.

Then Monday Night Football happened.

Seattle made New Orleans' passing offense look pedestrian. Brees was terrible, receivers couldn't get open and the Seahawks shut them down despite getting only one sack. It was a rare occasion where a vaunted passing team looked sluggish and were unable to throw deep.

"The legion of whom" is a cute nickname, but they're going to get exploited. Seattle was able to stop the deep pass because of how they locked down receivers at the line of scrimmage. Size and physicality is where the Seahawks win at the line, which is something the Panthers don't have.

It's up to Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. The job is theirs alone to generate enough pressure off the edge to force short passing, while Luke Kuechly needs to become a lot better at covering tight ends. Carolina's hopes hinge on these areas, much as they did against New England.

Rob Ryan is an aggressive defensive coordinator, which doesn't pair well against the Panthers. Cam Newton is exceptional at escaping the pass rush and running for yards, but he struggles when asked to sit in the pocket, cope with pressure and win with his arm. Some will take that as a slight, but this is who he is as a passer.

Edge: Saints

Running game

This is the key to the game. Points are scored through the air, but the clock is owned on the ground. Limiting New Orleans' possessions and grinding out the clock is the best way to limit Brees' touches and succeed on offense.

There is no comparison when looking at these teams. DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert should all be playing this week, and when you factor in Newton's running ability they should win on the ground.

Flip the field and the Saints don't have the talent to run through Carolina. Star Lotulelei will hold the point of attack, while Kuechly can clean up at linebacker.

Edge: Panthers

Overall outlook

I think Carolina loses this week. It's not a lack of faith in the Panthers, but rather an appreciation for how good the Saints are at home.

The fanbase as a whole wants to underrate Sean Payton's team out of dislike, but they're really good. I think the season series will be split between the sides, both winning at home -- but I just don't have enough faith in the pass defense to stop Drew Brees.

If that makes me a "hater," so be it.

New Orleans Saints 24, Carolina Panthers 17

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