Panthers, Saints seek control of NFC South race
NEW ORLEANS — Carolina coach Ron Rivera spent last December trying to muster a respectable enough finish to save his job.
Sean Payton, banished in connection with the bounty scandal, watched his Saints miss the playoffs from afar.
Both teams have gone from 7-9 finishes in 2012 to 9-3 records now, assuring each of winning seasons and putting them on track to make the playoffs.
Yet only one can claim the NFC South crown and the benefits that come with starting the postseason at home. Which team has the inside track will be established when they clash in the Superdome in a game recently moved from Sunday afternoon to prime time because of how much these clubs have improved.
"They were kind of in the same boat as us last year," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "They were a good team with a good offense. They just needed to tighten some things up.
"This year they're moving the ball on offense. They're playing well on defense," Kuechly added. "I guess it is a little bit the same" for Carolina.
Last weekend, these teams looked more like they were going in opposite directions.
The Saints fell hard, 34-7 in Seattle on Monday night in what had been hyped as the biggest game in the NFC to date. Carolina increased its NFL-long winning streak to eight with a convincing 27-6 win over recently resurgent Tampa Bay.
Drew Brees bristled at the notion the Saints' last performance might have eroded their confidence.
"We've done things well for a very long time in a lot of different ways," the quarterback said. "One game does not set that back. One game does not change our mindset, our confidence level or our attitude in any way. ... We still know we're a great football team."
The Panthers' winning streak featured what was widely seen as a coming-of-age performance on a Monday night against New England a few weeks ago. Winning a night game in the Superdome, where the Saints are 6-0 this season, might be even more impressive.
"It's a big game that everyone will be watching," Kuechly said. "It's against the Saints — a division game and a good team. There's not a whole lot of motivation that you need in this game. It's Drew Brees and the Saints on Sunday night. We're 9-3. They're 9-3. It's going to be an exciting game."
On that point, Kuechly gets no argument from the opposition.
"Yeah, it is a big game," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "You don't really have to add much sugar to this one."
Here are five things to look for as the Panthers and Saints play for the NFC South lead:
CONTAINING CAM: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been slippery during his team's win streak, often breaking out of tackles when it appears he's down, only to pick up a big gain. He did so last week on a 56-yard jaunt.
"He does a very good job of deciding when to run and when to look for the throw down the field," Saints coach Sean Payton noted.
The Saints will need more discipline to bottle Newton up than they displayed against Seattle's Russell Wilson, who gained 47 yards on scrambles.
BALL HOGS: This matchup features offenses that have been the best in the NFL at keeping the ball away from their opponents. The Panthers are first in the league in time of possession, averaging 33:10. The Saints are second, averaging 32:30.
RIVERBOAT RON: The Panthers have faced fourth-and-1 12 times since Week 2. Carolina has gone for it nine times, converting eight, including four for touchdowns. For that, Carolina's coach has earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron."
"The moniker is what it is as far as trying to describe some of the decisions I've made," Rivera said. "I kind of look at what I've done as just calculating it. ... We've got to just keep rolling with it I guess."
RUNNING CONCERNS: Newton has led his team in rushing the past three games — not what Carolina wants. But the Panthers expect running back DeAngelo Williams to return from his quad contusion. Williams had 210 yards rushing and two TDs in Carolina's last meeting with the Saints.
New Orleans, meanwhile, has struggled to run consistently, ranking 23rd in the league.
DOME ADVANTAGE: Rivera said he wasn't about to judge the New Orleans offense by its recent futility in Seattle, perhaps a wise move given Brees' production in the Superdome. The Saints QB has completed 73.5 percent of his passes for 2,141 yards and 19 TDs while getting intercepted only three times in six home games.