Two NFC South rivals wrap up their 2018 regular season by facing each other for the 49th time when the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers take the field this afternoon. The overall series between the two is tied at 24 wins apiece, including one postseason win by New Orleans. The two are also tied at 12 wins each against each other when the games are played in New Orleans, site of today's game.
The Panthers first entered the NFL in 1995, and were placed in the NFC West with the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis Rams, and the Saints. The first meeting between New Orleans and Carolina was during that '95 season, on October 22 at Memorial Stadium in South Carolina. The Saints outgained the expansion Panthers in total yardage on the day 302-155, but 4 interceptions by quarterback Jim Everett doomed them to a 20-3 defeat. New Orleans exacted a measure of revenge later that season during the first game between the two in the Superdome, on November 26, 1995. This time the Saints defense forced six turnovers and allowed Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins to complete just 37% of his passes on the way to a 34-26 victory. Carolina achieved immediate success as an expansion franchise, and won the next three games between the two, but New Orleans would battle back to take an 8-6 series lead before conference realignment in 2002.
The formation of the NFC South division in 2002 also brought about an increased intensity between these two franchises, often resulting in extremely physical games and heated encounters on the field. Both teams have won five division titles apiece, nearly as many as Atlanta and Tampa Bay's six combined. Only New Orleans and Carolina have managed to win consecutive division championships since the formation of the NFC South, and the two are often battling each other for playoff positioning down the stretch of the season. After winning four straight at home against the Panthers between 1998-2001, New Orleans would surprisingly lose 7 consecutive home meetings against their NFC South foe between 2002-08. The Saints have rebounded since that time to go 7-3 at home against Carolina since then, including the last three in a row.
The longest winning streak by either team against the other was when New Orleans defeated Carolina five times in a row from 2000-02. The Saints are currently riding a four game winning streak against their rivals coming into this one, including a three game sweep of the Panthers last season. The last time Carolina made the trip to New Orleans was on January 7, 2018, for a wildcard playoff showdown between the two. The Saints raced to a 21-9 halftime lead, and held on to a 31-26 postseason win to end Carolina's season. Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 376 yards, as receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. shredded the Panthers secondary for a combined 246 receiving yards. The Saints defense took center stage during the last showdown between the two teams, on December 17 in Carolina. New Orleans held the Panthers to only 247 total yards, 13 first downs, forcing two key turnovers, and holding the Panthers offense scoreless for the final three quarters in a 12-9 Monday night triumph.
Drew Brees has a 12-11 record against the Panthers since becoming starting quarterback of the Saints in 2006. He will not start today's contest though, as many of the team's stars will sit out in preparation for the postseason, having already clinched the division title and top seed throughout the playoffs. The Saints were in a similar situation to end the 2006 season, when they faced the Panthers at home to wrap up the regular season having already secured a postseason bye. Brees played very little, taking a seat along with most of the Saints starters early into the game. Without them, New Orleans was outscored 24-7 through the final three quarters and lost 31-21. This will be just the third start Brees will miss during his Saints career, ironically all against the Panthers.
The first of those came on January 3, 2010 in Carolina, the final regular season game of the 2009 season. The Saints had already wrapped up the NFC's number one seed for the playoffs, and sat Brees and nearly all of their starters. Veteran Mark Brunell got the start behind center, but a scaled down Saints team stumbled to a 23-10 defeat. The loss was the third straight to finish the 2009 season, but New Orleans would rebound, of course, to go on a playoff run that ended in a Super Bowl XLIV triumph. The only start that Brees would miss due to injury with the Saints was on September 27, 2015, an early season contest in Carolina. Quarterback Luke McCown would start in Brees' place, and would throw for 310 yards while completing 31 of 38 passes. Unfortunately, New Orleans was no match for the eventual conference champion Panthers, falling to them 27-22 in a game that went down to the final moments.
The Panthers came into the 2018 season with high expectations, and were touted by many as a contender for the NFC South title. After a 6-2 start, Carolina comes into the finale as losers of their last 7 contests. Starting quarterback Cam Newton, who had been hampered by injury, was shelved for the year. Hiis backup, Taylor Heinicke suffered a season ending elbow injury last week, meaning that the Panthers will start 3rd string quarterback Kyle Allen to end their disappointing season.
Carolina still has a dynamic versatile weapon in running back Christian McCaffrey, but little else offensively to consistently threaten a defense. The Saints defense, although also expected to rest some of their top players, is number one in the league against the run and has forced 19 turnovers over the last nine games, evolving into a disruptive and playmaking unit. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater gets his first start as a Saint this afternoon, and will get an opportunity to showcase his ability for a potential offseason contract extension with the team. Even though the Panthers still have solid talent in their defensive front seven, expect the Saints to attack Carolina's defense aggressively early on, even with a majority of their starters sitting out. A fast start in front of a raucous home crowd should be enough to demoralize a Panther team just playing out the string, thereby propelling the Saints to a franchise record 14th victory for the year, then on to the postseason for a championship run.