The New Orleans Saints host NFC South rival Carolina Panthers this afternoon in the final game in the first round of the playoffs. The winner moves on to play the NFC's 2nd seeded Minnesota Vikings next Sunday in the divisional round. This is the 47th meeting between New Orleans and Carolina, with the Panthers holding a 24-22 edge in the series, including a 12-11 advantage in games played in New Orleans. This is the first postseason meeting between the two, a rivalry that has often been hotly contested, extremely physical, and sometimes violent. Let's have a look at some of the key questions facing the NFC South champion Saints as they enter the most important game in their series history against Carolina, and their first playoff game since January, 2014.
WILL THE NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE BE ABLE TO CONTAIN CAM NEWTON?
Carolina's offense runs through the arm and legs, mostly legs, of their athletic quarterback. He leads the Panthers in rushing with 754 yards, and has thrown for 3,302 yards with 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions this season. The talented Saints secondary should be able to neutralize two of Newton's best targets in the passing game, tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Devin Funchess, but must find an answer for rookie running back Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield. Newton has the ability to take over a game with his legs, opening up passing plays down the field as the game progresses. Look for the Saints to "spy" Newton with their most athletic linebacker, Craig Robertson, while defensive ends Cam Jordan, George Johnson, and Trey Hendrickson must pressure the quarterback into mistakes.
WILL THIS BE A COMING OUT PARTY FOR THE SAINTS BIG THREE?
Running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, along with wide receiver Michael Thomas have been record-breaking stars, and keys to to success of the 2nd ranked New Orleans offense. Ingram has led the way on ground, rushing for a career high 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, and moving into second place on the team's all-time rushing list. He has also been an underrated receiver, finishing 3rd on the team with 58 receptions.
Thomas followed his outstanding rookie season with a team record 104 catches, a second consecutive 1,000 yard season (1,245), using terrific hands, great body positioning, underrated athleticism, and precise route running to become nearly unstoppable on intermediate routes.
Kamara has been sensational, and a favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He backed up his pre-draft analysis as a good receiver, with 81 catches for 826 yards and 5 touchdowns, but surprised many with his abilities as a runner, with 728 yards and 8 scores on the ground while averaging an incredible 6.1 yards per carry. Already perhaps the most feared all-purpose threat in the league, Kamara has added a jolt to the Saints kickoff return game as well, averaging 31.5 yards per return, including a club record 106-yd. touchdown return. These three stars have accounted for 4,339 yards from scrimmage, 69% of the Saints offensive total, and 30 of the team's 60 offensive touchdowns. The NFL playoffs provide a spotlight where national superstars are made. Thomas, Ingram, and Kamara may need to shine for New Orleans to continue their season.
WILL ONE OF THE SAINTS COMPLIMENTARY PLAYERS BE ABLE TO STEP UP IF NEEDED?
Ingram, Kamara, and Thomas are as good as anyone at their positions in the NFL. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees is still playing at a high level. The Saints offensive line is one of the best in the game. Coach Sean Payton's offense has struggled at times this season when their stars have either been controlled or out of the lineup. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has had a solid season, with 53 catches for 787 yards and 4 touchdowns. He seems to be the most likely candidate to step forward.
Wide receivers Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead were each expected to step up their production after the offseason trade of Brandin Cooks. Coleman has had some nice moments this season, but has been a non-factor in the passing game down the stretch. Snead has been perhaps the biggest disappointment on the team in 2017. After two seasons of nearly 1,000 receiving yards, Snead has just 8 receptions on 16 targets for 92 yards and zero scores. The Saints have gotten little production from their tight ends, particularly after losing Coby Fleener for the year. Can a player like Josh Hill, Coleman, or Snead make a big play at a key moment?
WILL THE SAINTS YOUNG PLAYERS STEP UP IN THE SPOTLIGHT?
The Saints are one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Key players such as Kamara, Thomas, Ryan Ramczyk, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, Marcus Williams, and Vonn Bell are all in their first or second seasons of professional football. Many others, like Craig Robertson, P.J. Williams, and Andrus Peat, will be playing in their first playoff game. New Orleans has some outstanding veteran leadership. Drew Brees, Thomas Morstead, and Max Unger have won a Super Bowl, Cam Jordan and Mark Ingram have played in big playoff games, and Sean Payton has had successful playoff runs. The playoffs are a time where emotions are intensified, mistakes are magnified, and performances remembered. These young stars have had to mature quickly in 2017, and have been vital to the Saints success, will they be able to take the next step forward?
Saints 24, Panthers 20
Who wins Saints vs. Panthers III?
This poll is closed