Before we dive into the Black & Blue Part Deux installment of the 2011 season, I'd like to give a history lesson. Sean Payton became the head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2006, and shortly thereafter, Drew Brees became his starting QB.
Over the last six seasons, the Saints have scored 40 or more points on 14 occasions. The first happened in 2006 against Dallas, where Sean Payton and Bill Parcells agreed to just kill the clock (Parcells actually conceded a loss and just took a knee - I've never seen that one before). The 2007 season added one more against a Jaguar team that was hot at the time (the Saints were fighting to get back to .500 and everything worked as they spread the Jags out). In 2008, the Saints scored over 40 on two occasions, against Green Bay and Detroit. In both instances, the Saints came close to breaking their franchise record for points scored in a game, yet Sean Payton toned it down and just handed the ball off for much of the last 20 minutes in each contest.
In 2009, the Saints offense finally came together with a viable rushing attack that provided balance, and they broke the 40 barrier 5 times (one playoff game included). In every instance, Drew Brees either handed the ball off in the 4th quarter or came out of the game once it was in hand. 2010 featured no 40+ point outings. This season, the Saints have crossed over 40 points on 5 occasions with their renewed rushing attack once again in play. Even when the Saints broke their franchise scoring record against the Colts, Drew Brees was yanked from the game in the third quarter and the backup QB didn't throw a single pass - yet two more TDs were still scored.
Sean Payton has shown time and time again that when the game is in hand, he's a fair sport and doesn't rub it in Bill Belichick style. Even when the Saints dominated the Patriots so much that Belichick said "f*** it" and pulled his starters with five and a half minutes to play, the Saints didn't pull a Steve Spurrier. In 2009, Drew Brees was 12 yards short of throwing for 4400 yards for a fourth consecutive season (at the time, Dan Marino had four such seasons in his career, leading the NFL with the most of the then 26 occasions of recorded 4,400 yard individual passing seasons), yet Drew sat out the last game in order to avoid injury for the postseason.
Here's the point, Pete Prisco: what happened Monday night in the Superdome was a special accomplishment, and if it could have occurred any other way that night, it would have. To assert that the Saints were classless and running up the score is irresponsible of a national NFL journalist. It reeks of homerism from a closet Falcons fan. The stage was set, that amount of yards was what was needed, and Drew Brees gave his fans and a national audience what they tuned in to see, removing a distraction heading into the finale. If you have a problem with the "Saints trying to score", I have a problem with the Falcons going for it on 4th down in their attempt to score multiple times before time expired. Take a pointer from Bill (Parcells or Belichick) and know when you've had your ass handed to you and take a knee if you don't want that to happen.
Now on to this week's game.
Cam Newton has already surpassed Peyton Manning's record for most passing yards in a rookie season, and he's doing it with a better completion percentage, fewer interceptions, and more combined touchdowns. In essence, he's doing it better. Does Newton scare me? - Hell, yeah! I don't even want to think about next year because he'll give the Saints enough trouble on Sunday alone. He's like that mouth sore that won't go away - no matter what you do, he'll be a problem.
Don't you dare play man coverage against him, because the minute the defensive backs turn their backs to him, he'll take off and gash the area of the field where routes aren't being run. The linebackers and defensive ends need to not play hero and just make contact and hold on until help arrives. Zone coverage isn't necessarily the answer either - Newton is smart and puts in the time it takes to be an elite QB: he knows how to read a defense and where to go with the ball.
The Panthers aren't going to the postseason. This IS their Super Bowl. They'd love nothing more than to spoil any chance the Saints have at a bye week and beat a full-strength Saints team. Ron Rivera isn't John Fox, but I couldn't tell in the first contest; he already has a good grasp on how to play the Saints. The key for the Panthers is playing physically - something they've always done against the Saints. They are looking to bloody a nose or two, disrupt the Saints timing on offense, and keep the defense off balance enough to convert on third downs and create offensive plays that would normally be sure stops when 1+1 doesn't equal 3.
In years past, if you could limit Steve Smith and bottle up the Williams/Stewart combo, the Panthers would eventually fall off pace - even when Drew was forced to nickel and dime and settle for more field goal attempts than touchdowns. With Cam Newton, that has changed. Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are averaging over 17 yards per catch (they have over 100 combined). Greg Olsen, Jonathan Stewart, and Legedu Naanee all have over 40 catches, while Jeremy Shockey isn't far behind with over 30. Newton spreads the ball around, and when he isn't hitting his WRs deep for a third best (64) completions of 20+ yards (tied with Drew Brees), he's dumping it off to the tight ends and running backs- they account for over 140 completions. Translation: if Cam Newton the runner doesn't give you an ulcer, Cam Newton the passer might be too much for Nexium.
How exactly can the Saints combat Cam? Sean Payton knows just what to do: he plans on attacking the Panthers full force, all players at a go. Do you think Payton will allow Tom Brady to break the record Drew Brees just set? Do you think Sean Payton will sit any star players when there's a chance St. Louis pulls off another great upset? Do you think Sean Payton will take his foot off the gas when his team is finally coming into form at the right time? I don't.
I look for Drew Brees to extend his record with another 300+ yard passing outing. I look for the Saints to break the Greatest Show on Turf's record for total yardage in a season, to break the record for most completions, to break the record for first downs, to break the record for most receiving yards by a tight end, and to continue a few streaks in the process while breaking even more records than I can list. I look for the Saints to rush for more yardage on the ground than Carolina. I look for the Saints defense to continue being stingy when it counts - on third down and in the red zone. I look for Legatron (Thomas Morstead) and the rest of the Saints special teams to once again be special and give the Saints a decided advantage in that phase.
Sure, Cam Newton will give the Saints defense more than we can stomach, but it won't be enough. The Saints are balanced when it counts. Carolina's defense has problems of their own, and I don't see how they can manage Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles now that the Saints offense has fully developed. The Saints can sustain drives without depending on the explosive plays - the Saints don't need the miraculous to convert on 3rd downs consistently, and that is the difference. This should be a tightly contested game, but I expect the Saints to win with a score of 34-24, even if San Francisco ends the first quarter with a 35-0 lead.
1. Saints - 33.5 points per game, 457 yards per game, 6.6 yards per play, 56% 3rd down conversions, 31:48 time of possession, -4 turnover margin
4. Panthers - 25.9 PPG, 396 YPG, 6.3 YPP, 42% 3rd down, 30:35 TOP, +2 TO margin
Passing Offense -
1. Saints - 329 YPG, 8.2 yards per attempt, 70.7% completion, 41 TDs, 13 INTs, (64) 20+ yard pass plays, 24 sacks given up, 108.2 QB rating
11. Panthers - 246 YPG, 8.0 YPA, 60.1% completion, 20 TDs, 16 INTs, (64) 20+ yard completions, 33 sacks surrendered, 85.3 QB rating
Rushing Offense -
3. Panthers - 150 YPG, 5.3 yards per carry, 25 TDs, 3 Fumbles, (22) 20+ yard rushes
9. Saints - 128 YPG, 4.8 YPC, 15 TDs, 3 fumbles, (13) 20+ yard runs
22. Panthers - 25.6 PPG, 362 YPG, 6.0 YPP, 42% 3rd down, 20 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries
26. Saints - 21.5 PPG, 373 YPG, 5.8 YPP, 34% on 3rd down, 19 FFs, 6 FRs
Pass Defense -
21. Panthers - 236 YPG, 8.2 YPA, 63.5% completion, 23 TDs, 13 INTs, (47) 20+ yard completions, 31 sacks, 94.2 opposing QB rating
30. Saints - 268 YPG, 7.1 YPA, 57.7% completion, 23 TDs, 8 INTs, (47) 20+ yard completions, 31 sacks, 86.1 opposing QB rating
Rush Defense -
10. Saints - 105 YPG, 4.8 YPC, 10 TDs, 7 fumbles, (12) 20+ yard runs allowed
21. Panthers - 126 YPG, 4.5 YPC, 17 TDs, 10 fumbles, (14) 20+ yard runs
Overall Statistical Comparison: On both offense and defense, not much separates these two teams. They allow and execute the same amount of explosive plays, and while the Panthers have a better turnover margin, the Saints are better on 3rd down on both sides of the ball. The Panthers look to have a better rushing attack, but I'd argue the Saints running backs have performed better than Carolina's group when you remove Newton's ground contributions. In the passing game, Drew Brees is the difference. Who would have thought before the season that the Panthers would have a Top 5 offense?