PANTHERS AT SAINTS
When: Noon Sunday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Radio: WWL-AM, 870 in New Orleans; KMDL-FM, 97.3 in Lafayette; WDGL-FM, 98.1 in Baton Rouge
Records: The Saints are 5-7. The Panthers are 3-8-1.
Last week: The Panthers, who have lost six consecutive games and tied another since their most recent victory Oct. 5, were defeated 31-13 at Minnesota on Sunday. The Vikings (5-7) turned two blocked Panthers punts into touchdowns, and they sacked Cam Newton on four plays; the Carolina quarterback has only been taken down behind the line of scrimmage more times in a game once this season.
Meanwhile, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw five touchdown passes in a 35-32 win at Pittsburgh (7-5). Two of his touchdown throws followed interceptions by New Orleans defense.
Coaches: Panthers, Ron Rivera, fourth season (28-31-1); Saints, Sean Payton, eighth season (78-46)
(League rank in parentheses)
Total yards: Saints, 430.2 (2nd); Panthers, 328.9 (21st)
Passing: Saints, 303.9 (3rd); Panthers, 225.8 (19th)
Rushing: Saints, 126.3 (8th); Panthers, 103.2 (21st)
Points: Saints, 26.9 (7th); Panthers, 19 (27th)
Total yards: Saints, 390.5 (31st); Panthers, 360.3 (17th)
Passing: Saints, 268.4 (28th); Panthers, 243.5 (17th)
Rushing: Saints, 122.1 (23rd); Panthers, 116.8 (19th)
Points: Saints, 26.5 (24th); Panthers, 27.6 (29th)
Panthers: Quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive end Mario Addison, defensive end Charles Johnson, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards
Saints: Quarterback Drew Brees, running back Mark Ingram, wide receiver Kenny Stills, tight end Jimmy Graham, defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Junior Galette, cornerback Keenan Lewis
Offense: Cam Newton has not been an effective passer this year, as he showed the first time he faced New Orleans this season, a 28-10 defeat on Oct. 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina. In that game, he delivered the worst completion percentage (35.7) and passer rating (39.4) of his four-year NFL career. His passer rating of 78.9 this year is 29th in the NFL after completing only 57.8 percent of his throws for 2,586 yards, 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The 36 times Newton has been sacked this year are second most in the league, thanks largely to his being sacked a season-high nine times in a 45-21 loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 10.
Nonetheless, New Orleans will want to zero in on Newton’s favorite aerial targets, 6-foot-5, 243-pound rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin and 6-foot-5, 250-pound veteran tight end Greg Olsen. Benjamin is tied for the most receptions (57) as well as the most scoring grabs (eight) by a rookie in the NFL this year. Olsen is among the reception leaders at tight end with 61 catches, and he hauled in five of Newton’s scoring throws.
Defense: Carolina’s defense has been below average in the major categories, and the Panthers have given up more points than all but three teams in the league. Nonetheless, they’ve taken the ball away from opposing offenses 17 times.
And New Orleans’ pass protection will need to contain defensive end Charles Johnson, defensive end Mario Addison, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and linebacker Luke Kuechly (the NFL’s reigning MVP on defense), who have combined for 18 of the Panthers’ 26 sacks.
Special teams: This group enters the game as a maligned unit. The pair of punt-block touchdowns they surrendered in the first half against the Vikings marked the first time two such plays had been made by the same team in a game in 24 years. It helped put the Panthers behind by a score of 21-3, which they couldn’t come back from.
Furthermore, Carolina has allowed two other touchdowns on special teams: off a 65-yard punt return and a fumbled punt. It’s obvious the Panthers are vulnerable in this area.
-- It’s absurd to think a game between two teams with a combined eight wins would have hefty playoff implications, but this one certainly does. The Saints are essentially even with Atlanta (also 5-7) for the lead in the NFC South division, ahead of Carolina and Tampa Bay (2-10); and they can’t afford to lose ground.
Even though the Falcons beat the Saints in Atlanta in Week 1, they have to visit New Orleans on Dec. 21. A win by the Saints on that day would cancel out the result from the earlier encounter in terms of tie breakers; and if the teams go into that match-up with the same records, it would nudge New Orleans ahead of Atlanta by a game with one contest left in the season. All division winners in the NFL earn the right to host a playoff game.
-- The Saints will be trying to snap an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when they kick off against Carolina on Sunday. They lost to San Francisco on Nov. 9, Cincinnati on Nov. 16 and Baltimore on Nov. 24 after winning each of the previous 11 regular-season games they played in the building, including three this year.
-- Some lagniappe: Former New Orleans cornerback Jabari Greer will be signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans at the Saints Hall of Fame Museum on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. before kickoff against the Panthers. The Hall of Fame is at Gate B on the plaza level of the Superdome. Admission is free to ticket holders on game days.
Greer played five seasons for the Saints from 2009-2013, playing in 63 games and starting in 60. He recorded nine interceptions and was in on 257 tackles with the Saints, and he formed part of the team that won Super Bowl XLIV, New Orleans’ lone major sports championship.