WHEN: 3:40 p.m.
WHERE: 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; en español: WGSO-AM, 990; WVDU-FM, 97.9
RECORDS: New Orleans 11-5; Carolina 11-5
COACHES: Saints, Sean Payton, 11th season, 105-71, 6-4 in playoffs; Panthers, Ron Rivera, 64-47-1, 3-3 in playoffs
LAST WEEK: With a chance to steal the NFC South title away from the Saints in reach, Carolina's offense stumbled badly in a 22-10 loss to Atlanta. Coupled with a near-loss to Tampa Bay the week before, the Panthers have lost the momentum of their pre-Christmas wins over Minnesota and an Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay.
OFFENSE: The Carolina offense coming to New Orleans this weekend looks quite a bit different than the versions the Saints played the first two times this season. For starters, the Panthers will have tight end Greg Olsen for the first time. Olsen, who missed the first two games because of injury, has killed the Saints in the past. Olsen has averaged 6.7 catches and 82 yards in his past six starts against New Orleans, and the Saints no longer have Kenny Vaccaro. By the same token, New Orleans is expected to have rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore for the first time, and the Panthers have been crippled by injury at wide receiver. Devin Funchess, who has been battling a shoulder injury, is averaging just 2.3 catches and 34.3 yards over the past four games, and Carolina has lost both of its burners, Damiere Byrd and Curtis Samuel, to injury. Even rookie Christian McCaffrey, who led the Panthers with 80 catches this season and finished with 1,086 yards from scrimmage, has largely been kept in check, averaging just 37.5 yards receiving down the stretch. With a lack of receiving options, Cam Newton struggled at the finish. Newton, who threw 22 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions this season, cracked the 200-yard passing mark just twice in Carolina's final nine games, and he's coming off of one of the worst starts of his career against Atlanta. New Orleans should have the advantage against the passing offense, but the Saints' 16th-ranked run defense will have its hands full. Using Newton as the primary rusher, Carolina averaged 165.1 yards on the ground in the season's final eight games, although Tampa Bay and Atlanta reduced that figure to 101 yards per game in the final two.
DEFENSE: Carolina's defense, ranked No. 7 in the NFL in total defense and 11th in scoring, remains dangerous, but the Panthers have masked some cracks down the stretch by creating turnovers. Normally, the 400 yards of offense the Saints put up in the second matchup would be an outlier, and it is the most Carolina has allowed all season, but it's not a true outlier. In the final six weeks, the Panthers are giving up 382.3 yards per game, more than 100 yards more than the 278 per game they allowed in the first 10 weeks. Diving into the numbers further, Carolina's biggest problems have come against the pass; the Panthers are allowing opponents to rack up 281.8 yards passing per game over their final six games, and both Jameis Winston and Matt Ryan broke the 300-yard barrier. Led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Carolina remains strong against the run, but the Panthers have had trouble with the Saints this season. New Orleans has posted 149 and 148 rushing yards in its two meetings with Carolina, the two highest totals the Panthers have given up all year long. Carolina has offset some of its yardage issues with big plays. The Panthers' pass rush finished third in the NFL with 50 sacks, and 21 of those came in the final six games. The rush can come from anywhere; defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mario Addison tied for the team lead with 11 sacks apiece, defensive tackle Kawann Short had 7.5 and five more Panthers have two sacks or more. Carolina also forced 10 turnovers in the final four games, even though Atlanta didn't give up the ball once in the season finale.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Losing Byrd and Samuel has taken the juice out of Carolina's kick return game, and McCaffrey has been mostly average as a punt returner, but the Panthers' coverage units have been solid all season long. Kicker Graham Gano has missed just one field goal all season, but that miss is instructive; it was Gano's only attempt of more than 50 yards.