Saints try for trifecta vs. Panthers
NEW ORLEANS -- The commonly accepted myth about the difficulty of beating a team three times in one season will be put to its latest test when the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints (11-5) host their division rivals, the Carolina Panthers (11-5), in a wild-card playoff game Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints turned around an 0-2 season by beating the Panthers 34-13 in Charlotte in Week 3, igniting an eight-game winning streak. They then beat them in the Superdome 31-21 on Dec. 3.
Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, teams that swept the regular-season series also won the playoff game 13 of 20 times, a 65 percent edge.
The Saints are not banking their hopes on statistical probabilities but on a balanced offense that does not rely on 45 throws a game by Drew Brees and on a revitalized defense that so far has withstood a withering number of injuries to starters.
Brees, who will turn 39 on Jan. 15, said he does feel an internal clock ticking on his career but treats every game with respect.
"I prepare like every game could be my last or (like) it's a playoff game or I've got something to prove and I've got an edge," Brees said. "It's not like, 'Oh, the playoffs are here, it's time to ramp it up or things are a little more important.' It's always important for me."
There were some common threads in the Saints' two regular-season victories over Carolina. The Panthers are ranked No. 7 in the NFL on defense, allowing 317.2 yards per game, and just 88.1 yards rushing, third best in the league. But Carolina yielded their most yards rushing this season to the Saints -- 149 yards in Week 3 and 148 in Week 13.
That's a credit to rookie sensation Alvin Kamara and veteran running back Mark Ingram as well as to the Saints' offensive line. Brees is the biggest beneficiary of a powerful running attack that is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, best in the NFL, and 129.4 yards per game, fifth in the league.
Brees threw 137 fewer passes this year (536) but connected on 386 for an NFL-record 72.0 completion percentage. His 4,334 passing yards are nearly 800 yards fewer than his 2016 totals but just about equal to his 4,388 passing yards in 2009, the Saints' Super Bowl season.
"Sure is nice," Brees said, smiling. "Does it change the way I prepare? No. Does it change my mindset going into a game? No. It's just that when you add up the number of throws ... if you take away five, seven, 10 attempts a game and those are going to the run game, that means you're doing something right in the run game, and it probably means you're playing good defense. It doesn't force me to take as many chances."
The Saints also have done an excellent job putting a vise around Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who happens to be the Panthers' leading rusher. Newton has passed for just 350 yards in the two losses. He threw three interceptions in the first meeting, including one in the end zone. He is a dangerous runner, but his only gash run against the Saints this year was a 32-yard scramble in garbage time.
The Panthers could have won the NFC South outright last week but were hamstrung by an inept offensive performance in a 22-10 loss to the Falcons. Newton completed just 14 of 34 passes for 180 yards and was picked off three times.
Newton said the Panthers have erased that game from their memory banks and are poised to make a playoff statement.
"This is when real football starts," said Newton, who led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015 with a 15-1 regular-season record. "(We're) explaining it to the young guys and the guys who haven't witnessed playoff football. This is where you are made or broke. I look forward to these types of moments because it brings out the best in individuals because there is so much pressure. We all know what they say about pressure -- it does one of two things -- and we're hoping to shine like diamonds."
Each team will have a significant player available who did not play in either of the first two games: Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, who has been battling a foot injury all season, and Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
Saints coach Sean Payton said if Olsen is healthy, it could pose a threat to his defense because Olsen is "one of the better tight ends in the game. Not having him is significant and having him is huge."
Carolina coach Ron Rivera knows that Lattimore, who made the Pro Bowl, can help the Saints shut down any deep threat the Panthers have. Lattimore normally shadows the opponent's best receiver, so he may draw Devin Funchess, who has 63 catches for 840 yards.
"When I watch (Lattimore), he's a terrific football player," Rivera said.
The Panthers hope to have guard Trai Turner back after missing three games with concussion symptoms. Saints starting left tackle Terron Armstead (thigh) and wide receiver Michael Thomas (hamstring) were limited in practice on Wednesday but should be able to go.
Updated January 3, 2018