(CBSDFW/CBS Local) — The New Orleans Saints control their NFC South destiny. And, at 8-2, coming off a bounce-back win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they’re part of the NFC home-field-advantage conversation too. The Saints just need to keep winning. Their remaining schedule, with matchups against division foes and other division leaders, won’t make that easy.
In Week 12, the Saints meet the Carolina Panthers for the first time this season. The Panthers, at 5-5, may also still have some say in their playoff future, if they can win some games. But that’s a big ‘if,’ considering they were just dismantled by the now 3-7 Atlanta Falcons and have lost three of four. (The Falcons took care of the Saints the week before.) The game with the Saints presents as pretty close to a must-win for the Panthers, given that they trail both the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks by three games in the NFC wild-card race. However, staying alive in the Big Easy will be anything but.
The Saints’ season took an unexpected turn in Week 2, when Drew Brees was sidelined with a thumb issue that required surgery. But that turn proved to be more of a swerve. Teddy Bridgewater, after losing to the Los Angeles Rams in relief, started the next five games and turned in five wins. His stats weren’t showy (except for a 314-yard, four-touchdown showing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), but they also didn’t have to be with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas lighting it up.
With Drew Brees back (early) under center, the Saints beat the Arizona Cardinals and Buccaneers convincingly and lost to the Falcons rather unconvincingly. Brees threw three touchdowns in each of the two wins and is averaging almost 300 yards passing in those three games. His most productive target, Michael Thomas, leads the NFL in receptions with 94 and in receiving yardage with 1,141.
Brees’ Panthers counterpart, Kyle Allen, doesn’t have that productive of a target. Though wide receiver DJ Moore does have 62 catches and 779 yards on the season. Allen is coming off a horrendous zero-touchdown four-interception performance against the Atlanta Falcons. He has been serviceable since taking over for Cam Newton back in September, averaging 240.4 yards per game passing and winning five of his eight starts. But throwing 10 touchdown passes against nine interceptions isn’t good enough to elevate the Panthers into legitimate contention. And with Newton likely gone after the season, his mixed results may lead the Panthers to search for QB alternatives in the off-season.
The Panthers offense runs through running back Christian McCaffrey, who is having a breakout season. One of only three 1000-yard rushers to date this season, the third-year back leads the NFL with 1059 yards and is averaging 105.9 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry. His 11 rushing touchdowns ties him for the lead in that category as well. McCaffrey, with only one fumble on the season, is by far the most reliable weapon the Panthers have.
Carolina can score, but their defense will give up points as well, to the tune of 25.7 points per game, eighth-worst in the League. And that doesn’t portend good results against a Brees-led offense, particularly one with so many weapons. The Saints defense is also playing well, and with Allen so unreliable, it can focus on stopping McCaffrey. The Panthers are desperate for a intra-conference win — or just a win — but they’ll have trouble prevailing this week.
The Panthers play the Saints Sunday @ 1 p.m. ET on CBS.