“It’s a trap!” exclaimed Rebel armada commander Admiral Ackbar when facing what he did realize was an armed and fully operational Death Star in Return of the Jedi.
The New Orleans Saints open up a 14 point favorite against the Carolina Panthers this Sunday afternoon in the Superdome. Though the Black and Gold had covered the spread in every game going into Monday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons (and would have covered in that game as well had Saints running back Mike Bell had better ball control), two full-touchdowns sounds like a lot against a team Sean Payton has yet to beat in the Superdome (Saints haven’t beaten the Panthers in New Orleans since 2001).
Despite a 3-4 record, the Panthers have shown signs of life as of late. Last Sunday, they defeated the Arizona Cardinals in the desert by score of 34-21. The Panthers also have the fifth best running game in the league and the top passing defense in football.
The Saints struggled against Falcons running back Michael Turner on Monday night. Turner, who wasn’t having that good of a season until then, racked up 151 ground yards against the Saints’ run defense.
Former Saints back-up quarterback Jake Delhomme’s tenure as quarterback has been questioned for much of the early part of the 2009 season, having thrown 13 interceptions and lost two fumbles already. Looking to avoid giving the game to the Saints’ very dangerous secondary, expect the Panthers to keep the ball on the ground for much of the game, taking their chances against a Sedrick Ellis-less Saints defensive line.
Turnovers will largely decide this game: can the Saints jump to an early lead to put the fate of the game on Delhomme’s shoulders or will Saints quarterback Drew Brees be forced into making bad throws.
An advantage the Saints have is that the Carolina defense has not had much success stopping the run, ranking 24th in the NFL allowing 127.6 yards per game on the ground. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Bell need to establish the ground game early to wear down the Carolina defense but also give Brees some breathing room, something he didn’t have much of in the first half of the Falcons game.
Carolina is trying to return to playoff contention: a loss to a division rival will complicate matters for the Panthers. The road doesn’t get any easier for them with the Patriots, Falcons, Jets, Giants, Dolphins, Vikings and a rematch against the Saints in Bank of America Stadium in the season finale. A loss on Sunday could mean the beginning of the end of their season.
Sean Payton has gotten the bye-week monkey off his back; will he finally beat the Panthers under the dome? Probably. But not by 14 points or more.
Carolina represents the Saints toughest opponent until after Thanksgiving, when they face the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. With Minnesota having lost only one game so far, and then to an AFC team, the Saints cannot afford to lose any NFC games until the Vikings start to stumble- and they have a fairly easy schedule for the remainder of the season. A loss to Carolina drops the Saints below the Vikings as the second team in the NFC. If the Saints want to host the NFC Championship game, the Saints need to be perfect and avoid re-enacting the sloppy play against Atlanta.