When you look at Sunday's matchup between the Saints and Panthers, the common thread is how dynamic their offenses can be. We all know the kind of quarterback Drew Brees is, but honestly, who thought Cam Newton would be leading a top 5 offense at this point while opening up his rookie season with two consecutive 400+ yard performances? It's unheard of, and it's down-right scary if you are a Saints fan.
Below, we'll discuss the tale of the tape for each team, examining and contrasting each position group. Then we'll speculate as to what you might expect to see on Sunday and follow it up with a statistical comparison.
Each have liabilities on defense as well, especially at the linebacker position. Carolina started the season with the best group of linebackers in the division, if not the NFL, but injuries quickly depleted their starters and Dan Connor's stock has fallen dramatically. For the last two decades, the Saints have left a lot to be desired at the linebacker position; they're especially vulnerable when facing a good tight end or pass catching running back. Each team has a better than average secondary, though you wouldn't know it by simply looking at statistics. I'd go as far as to call the defensive line for each team a wash -- they can each be dominant or equally non-effective each week; neither is altogether consistent, though the talent is there.
So how much actually separates the two teams? I'd argue the Saints have the best group of wide recievers in the division (Atlanta may have the best 1-2 punch) and I'd postulate that Carolina has the worst group in the division (since the season began, maybe we can elevate their WR corps over Tampa's). In addition, Drew Brees and the coaching staff have the edge in experience. Carolina may have better offensive tackles, but the Saints have a better interior line. I'll take the Saints safeties over anyone the Panthers have to offer. The Saints are more dynamic at running back, while the Panthers are more traditional.
What can we expect to see? In their losses, each team was in the game down to the last possession. I don't think that will change Sunday. You may see a double digit lead at some point, but I wouldn't expect more than a ten point differential. Under John Fox, Carolina vs. New Orleans was always a very physical affair. I do expect that to change somewhat because Carolina's philosophy has changed with the new staff (especially offensively). I believe it will be less "black and blue" and more "track meet."
When playing a divisional opponent, it matters not what each teams records are; they know each other too well. It ultimately comes down to the matchups, which is why teams build their rosters with the goal of exploiting a divisional opponent first and foremost. That said, the experience of the Saints pass catchers and quarterback will be the difference in this game. Cam Newton and Steve Smith will get theirs, but it won't be enough. The Saints have plenty of experience and practice compensating for poor linebacker play; Carolina doesn't. The complementary WRs the Saints have will be able to exploit Carolina's LBs more consistantly than Carolina's pass catchers will be able to best the Saints LBs. This will be a close game until the 4th quarter, but the Saints will come away with a 34 to 27 win.
2. Saints - 31.8 points per game, 454 yards per game, 6.4 yards per play, 55% 3rd down conversion, 32:35 time of possession, -3 turnover margin
3. Panthers - 22.2 ppg, 440 ypg, 6.3 ypp, 33% 3rd downs, 32:06 TOP, -2 TO margin
2. Saints - 335 ypg, 8.1 yards per attempt, 69% completion, 10 Td's, 4 int's, (16) 20+ yard pass plays, 9 sacks given up, 102.9 QB rating
3. Panthers - 334.8 ypg, 8.5 ypa, 59.5% completion, 5 td's, 5 int's, (25) 20+ yard pass completions, 8 sacks, 84.5 qb rating
10. Saints - 119 ypg, 4.5 yards per carry, 3 tds, 1 fumble, (3) 20+ yard runs
17. Panthers - 105 ypg, 4.1 ypc, 4 tds, 1 fumble, (3) 20+ yard runs
14. Panthers - 25.5 ppg, 347 ypg, 6.5 ypp, 33% 3rd downs allowed, 2 fumble recoveries
15. Saints - 24.5 ppg, 348 ypg, 5.5 upp, 38% 3rd down, 1 fumble recovery
6. Panthers - 203 ypg, 9.0 ypa, 61.1% completion, 5 td's, 2 int's, (12) 20+ yard passes allowed, 6 sacks, 99.4 opposing qb rating
19. Saints - 254 ypg, 7.0 ypa, 52.2% completion, 8 td's, 2 int's, (13) 20+ yard passes allowed, 13 sacks, 86.1 qb rating
9. Saints - 94.0 ypg, 4.6 ypc, 2 td's, (2) 20+ yard runs allowed
31. Panthers - 144 ypg, 5.2 ypc, 4 td's, (7) 20+ yard runs allowed
Overall Statistical Analysis:
Carolina has been average on third down, while the Saints just about lead the NFL in conversion - which is one reason you see such a large differential in points scored per game. Carolina can move the ball, but the lack of experience and diversity at wide receiver cost them in the red zone and on 3rd down. Carolina has gotten their yards in big chunks while the Saints have shown the ability to "nickel and dime" opponents, convert on third down and consistently pick them apart. The Saints may consider running on Carolina's defense while not exploiting linebackers with Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles in the passing game because the more they run, the longer they keep Newton off the field.