The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers meet up for the 46th time this afternoon in one of the most meaningful showdowns of their underrated NFC rivalry. Both teams have 8-3 records, and the winner will have the NFC South lead, along with an important victory for potential playoff seeding in a log jammed conference near the top as the season enters the final quarter of the regular season.
These two have been going at each other since the Panthers 1995 arrival into the league as division rivals, first in the NFC West, then since the 2002 inception of the NFC South. Carolina leads the overall series, 24-21, including a 12-10 record in games played in New Orleans, site of today's contest. The Saints won the last meeting between the two, claiming a 34-13 victory in Carolina during week 3 of this season, sparking an eight game winning streak for New Orleans that ended just a week ago. The Saints won the last game played in New Orleans between these two as well, in a 41-38 shootout on October 16, 2016. Saints quarterback Drew Brees had a magnificent game, torching the Panthers secondary on multiple long passes, and finishing with 465 yards and 4 touchdowns. New Orleans wideout Brandin Cooks was a beneficiary of Brees' long passes that day, catching 7 passes for 173 yards and an 87-yd. scoring catch. That was the 3rd straight game between the Saints and Panthers played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where the winner scored 41 points, and fifth time in the last six meetings under The Dome where the winning team scored over 40 points.
The Saints and Panthers have often engaged in physical battles. Emotions and genuine dislike between the two teams are usually on display, often resulting in scuffles after plays, and in some cases outright brawls between the two sides. The first infamous incident took place during a game in Carolina on October 9, 2011. Steve Smith, Carolina's talented but trash-talking receiver, had just scored on a spectacular 54-yd. touchdown reception when he was leveled in the end zone by Saints safety Roman Harper, causing both benches to clear and an ugly brawl to ensue. The Saints would win that game, coming from behind on a Brees touchdown pass to running back Pierre Thomas with less than a minute remaining to escape with a 30-27 victory. Later that year, in the regular season finale, Panthers coach Ron Rivera hinted that Saints coach Sean Payton had left his starters in to inflate their statistics during a 45-17 New Orleans home victory. Smith tortured the Saints for 13 years as a Panther, but a new level to this rivalry was reached with the arrival of top overall draft pick Cam Newton to Carolina in 2011. Newton's emotional play and celebrations have never sat well with Saints defenders, and personal rivalries have raised intensity with each match up.
Red-hot emotions between the two exploded on December 7, 2014 in New Orleans, when a Newton celebration after a 1st quarter scoring run touched off a skirmish that escalated into a bench clearing brawl resulting in player ejections. Carolina routed the Saints that day, 41-10, in the first of four consecutive victories to vault them to an unlikely division title with a 7-8-1 record, finishing just a half game ahead of the 7-9 Saints for a playoff berth.
Saints coach Sean Payton and Panthers coach Ron Rivera are as much a contrast in styles as the personalities of the two quarterbacks of the teams, Brees and Newton. The differences often result in a volitile mixture on the field as well. New Orleans took it to the typically more physical Panthers in their first meeting this season, running the ball effectively, getting the best of Carolina's secondary with the pass, and at times dominating the Panthers offense with a young and aggressive defense. Both teams have some issues with injuries on both sides of the ball, but expect the same sort of physicality with each team in this rematch. The winner of the 2017 Saints-Panthers sequel gains a distinct advantage as this NFL season heads into the home stretch.
PREDICTION: Saints 27, Panthers 17
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