If Sunday’s crucial matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints feels a bit familiar, that’s because it should.
On Dec. 8, 2013, these two rivals—both 9-3 and tied atop the NFC South—collided at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a Week 14 showdown.
The host Saints would end up bludgeoning their guests that Sunday night, but it was the Panthers who earned the last laugh with a divisional title by season’s end.
Now, almost exactly four years later, Carolina and New Orleans will meet under nearly identical circumstances for another big-time showdown.
Here are five storylines to follow in this matchup:
1. Will the Panthers learn from their Week 3 loss?
“All Saints” would be somewhat of an understatement to describe the first 2017 meeting between these teams, as New Orleans raided Bank of America Stadium and simply had its way with Carolina in a 34-13 win.
For the Panthers to avenge that embarrassing loss, they’ll have to play a much different game.
In that first meeting, the Panthers sacked quarterback Drew Brees just once, forced no turnovers and got absolutely denied through the air with just 156 passing yards and three interceptions. While a pair of somewhat sloppy defensive performances from Steve Wilks’ group over the last two outings can be a cause for concern, the emergence of wide receiver Devin Funchess and probable return of tight end Greg Olsen should make for a more viable offense.
2. Cam vs. Cam
After limiting quarterback Cam Newton to just 16 rushing yards back on Sept. 24, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan questioned his adversary’s capability as a pocket passer. He’d also offer a critique of Newton’s fashion, pointing out his “high heels,” “grandma hat” and “onesie.” Newton, in turn, has since offered Jordan some “sauce” and claimed he was flattered by his dress-code comments.
Sauce, swag, drip and any other nods to style aside, the Panthers have to keep the newly-anointed NFC Defensive Player of the Month away from their quarterback. That means manning down the right side with Daryl Williams to prevent Jordan from adding to his ten-sack total and giving Newton the freedom to run.
A less healthier Cam’s rushing abilities were limited Week 3, and he totaled just three carries outside. He must be more active on the ground Sunday.
3. Run CMC vs. the Alvin Kamara Show
Like two godsends, rookie rushers Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara have added a much needed element to both of their teams’ offenses. The former finally gave Carolina a dynamic play-maker as a receiver and runner while the latter has helped round out the New Orleans offense with a dangerous ground attack.
Sunday’s matchup could ultimately be influenced by which of the two has a bigger afternoon.
Will it be the eighth overall pick in McCaffrey, who has averaged 5.6 per carry with three touchdowns in his last three games? Or, will it be the third-round gem in Kamara, the NFL’s leader in yards per attempt at staggering 7.1?
4. Who will stop the Saints run game?
Kamara isn’t the only reason why these aren’t your same old Saints. A ton of credit also has to go to Mark Ingram, whose eight touchdowns already sit just one end-zone visit shy of a career-high for the seventh-year veteran.
As they have in recent wins, New Orleans did much of its damage against Carolina through their backfield in Week 3. Kamara and Ingram spearheaded a 149-yard output on the ground in the 21-point win.
The task of stopping the league’s third-most productive rushing game won’t be easier for the Panthers, as defensive end Charles Johnson begins a four-game suspension for his use of performance enhancing drugs. Even though he hasn’t been the pass-rushing presence we saw in his prime years, his effectiveness against the run will have to be matched by the combination of Julius Peppers, Wes Horton and Bryan Cox Jr.
5. Injuries abound
A weird win at MetLife Stadium last week proved somewhat costly for Carolina, as a handful of players were ruled “questionable” by head coach Ron Rivera on Friday. The injured include Olsen, McCaffrey, center Ryan Kalil and linebackers Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.
Eh. They’re not that important anyway, right?
Then, in what might have been a small act of gamesmanship ahead of this weighty contest, the Saints threw the “questionable” tag on three key players as well—starting left tackle Terron Armstead and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and P.J. Williams.
As far as the Panthers’ injuries go, Rivera did state he feels “optimistic” that a setback-free practice on Saturday will translate into the green light for each of his five guys.
Losing more key players right now would be devastating for either side. The winner may be determined by who can stay the healthiest.