Saints at Panthers
3:25 p.m. Sunday, Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Radio: WWL-AM, 870; WWL-FM, 105.3 in New Orleans; KMDL-FM, 97.3 in Lafayette; WDGL-FM, 98.1 in Baton Rouge
Records: New Orleans 4-7; Carolina 11-0
Coaches: Saints, Sean Payton, 10th season (84-55); Panthers, Ron Rivera, fifth season (43-31)
No team in the NFL is hotter than Carolina, a team that won its past three games by an average of three touchdowns. Placed in the annual Thanksgiving showdown against Dallas, Carolina steamrolled the Cowboys 33-14, leaving the Panthers as the NFL’s only undefeated team and with a long week of preparation for the Saints.
Cam Newton is having the best season of his career, vaulting into the MVP race despite a dearth of talent around him. Newton’s numbers (2,466 yards, 20 touchdowns, nine interceptions; 427 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) aren’t out of line with what he’s done in the past, but he’s been incredible in the fourth quarter, and he’s obviously the engine that drives this Panthers team.
Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, who has 832 yards this season, gets a favorable matchup against a struggling Saints rushing defense. The Saints’ biggest problem in Week 3 was covering Greg Olsen, who has 53 catches for 788 yards and six touchdowns. Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess provide help as outside receivers in support of Olsen. A patchwork offensive line is just 19th in the league in percentage of sacks allowed, and the Panthers are middle of the pack in rushing. But the offense has gotten the job done.
Carolina’s offense isn’t a problem because the defense has been incredible. Carolina is second in the NFL in total yardage, third in scoring, second against the run and fifth against the pass. The Panthers lead the league in passer rating, holding quarterbacks to a paltry 68.7 number, largely because Kurt Coleman, Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis all have more than three interceptions. Carolina also has 33 sacks, led by six from an emerging star at defensive tackle Kawann Short. He’s had plenty of help from Kony Ealy (5 sacks), Mario Addison (4½) and Davis (4).
And New Orleans should be concerned because the Panthers have their leader back. Kuechly, who wasn’t available in the first meeting, is one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers. The emergence of Norman and Short gives Carolina four bona fide stars on defense. With Kuechly and Davis up the middle, rushing yards are just as hard to come by as big plays in the passing game.
Special teams: Both of the Panthers’ coverage units have been suspect at times, having allowed a kick return for a score and a punt return touchdown to Marcus Murphy in the first meeting. Kicker Graham Gano has been solid, making 25 of 30 field-goal attempts this season. Punter Brad Nortman has been solid, and in the return game, Ginn still looms, capable of the big play.