When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, which hasn’t hosted a Saints playoff game since the 2011 season (the Ravens beat the 49ers there in Super Bowl XLVII).
TV: FOX, with Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews and Chris Myers.
Spread / total: Saints -7.5 / 48
Last time they met: New Orleans beat Carolina by double-digit margins in both of their matchups this season.
Five things you need to know
1. Third time’s a charm?: As I said, New Orleans beat Carolina by double-digit margins both times they played this season. Dating back to the 1970 merger, teams that went 0-2 against an opponent during the regular season have a .350 winning percentage when facing them in the playoffs. That’s not particularly bad, all things considered. On the road against a team that is clearly superior, Carolina is a clear-cut underdog. But the Panthers certainly have a shot, especially considering that they had defeated the Saints in four of their previous five matchups prior to this season.
2. Momentum, or lack thereof: The problem for the Panthers is they’ve looked sloppy and uninspired on offense of late, having found the end zone on just two of their last 24 offensive drives. With a chance to win the NFC South, they turned the ball over three times in a season-closing loss to the Falcons. And quarterback Cam Newton posted a 45.9 passer rating in the final two weeks of the regular season. But the Saints aren’t any hotter, having given up 31 points in a season-closing loss to the Buccaneers. After beating the Redskins by the skin of their teeth with an improbable Week 11 comeback, the Saints finished the regular season 3-3.
3. These Saints feel a lot like the 2009 team: That team, of course, won the Super Bowl. It also had Drew Brees at quarterback and was led by head coach Sean Payton. It also had a takeaway-happy defense (these Saints have forced 10 turnovers in their last four games). It also ran the ball better than most folks would have thought (Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush combined for 1,837 rushing yards). And it also didn’t rely as heavily on Brees as most folks would have thought or expected. The only two times Brees has attempted fewer than 550 passes as a member of the Saints? You guessed it — 2009 and 2017. Watch out, everyone else, starting with Carolina.
4. But Brees still has it: The 38-year-old set a new record with a completion percentage of 72.0 while posting the second-highest passer rating in football. Yes, running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara get most of the credit these days, but Brees actually completed more 20-yard passes than anyone else in football by a wide margin. That’s gotta scare a Panthers defense that struggled a bit in December and surrendered the league’s 10th-highest opposing passer rating during the regular season.
5. For the Panthers to make the third time a charm… Newton will have to take over. The 2015 MVP has the ability to do exactly that, and the Saints are a touch soft up front against the run. If anywhere, that’s where they’re vulnerable. Newton lacks top-tier receiving threats, but if Carolina can shorten the game with Newton using his legs and with Christian McCaffrey, Jonathan Stewart and Co. churning out yardage, they’ll have a shot.
Under-the-radar potential X factor: The Saints hardly missed Brandin Cooks this season, partly due to the fact veteran receiver Ted Ginn averaged 14.8 yards per reception while catching 75.7 percent of the passes thrown his way. That makes him one of the most effective per-target receivers in the game. If the Panthers focus on taking away Michael Thomas and limiting Kamara and Ingram, Ginn could have a chance to be a difference-maker against his former team.
Prediction: Brees really is rolling more than anyone is giving him credit for. At home, the weapon-rich Saints should easily roll over a Panthers team that just hasn’t looked right often enough this year. Saints 34, Panthers 17