NFC Wild Card

(5) Carolina Panthers at (4) New Orleans Saints

Panthers: It’s been a successful year for Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers and the last time we saw them playing postseason football, they were on the losing end of Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos. The 2016 season was a down one after winning 15 games the year before, they won just six and this year, they finished in second place in a very competitive NFC South with 11 wins. After they lost to the Saints in week 13 of the regular season, they had a tough stretch of games after that could either make or break them. A Minnesota Vikings team that was really surging at the time and beat them with a complete effort all around. Next, it was the Packers with the return of Aaron Rodgers and they spoiled his comeback with three interceptions and on Christmas Eve, they played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which I called a trap game especially playing a divisional opponent and they were struggling in that game until Cam came to the rescue and scored the go-ahead touchdown to get them the win and they clinched a playoff spot. Last week was what made me shake my head because they couldn’t get anything going. Cam Newton threw three interceptions, the defense struggled to apply pressure on Matt Ryan and the offense as a whole was too dependent on Cam to bail them out. I’ve ranted about this for most of the year with the Panthers and that’s your leading rusher being your quarterback. Carolina accounted for 5,179 offensive yards in 2017 and Cam Newton accounted for an overwhelming 4,056, or 78.3 percent of those yards. He led the Panthers in rushing in seven of their 16 games, winding up with 754 yards on the ground (the most among NFL quarterbacks). They will wrap up Wild Card weekend on Sunday afternoon against a team they’ve struggled against this year.

Saints: After they lost their first two games of the year, I stuck a fork in them because it was the same old Saints. The offense wasn’t really as strong as they have been known to be over the years under Sean Payton and the defense once against was reclaiming its title as the worst in the league. After the loss to New England, they found their rhythm against the Carolina Panthers and that win turned into another and at one time, they were the hottest teams in the NFL, the winners of eight games in a row and it seemed as if they were running away with the NFC South. They didn’t end the season with a win, but they still clinched the division for the first time since 2011 with the Panthers losing in Atlanta and the Saints owning the head to head tiebreaker over the Panthers. What’s been the major reasons behind their improvements this year? Yes, they still have quarterback in Drew Brees who is a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and he still made things happen, the Saints have reinvented themselves to be a running team once again and they have the best running back tandem in the NFL in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara or “Slick and Quick” is what I refer to them as. They became the first tandem of backs in NFL history to each eclipse 1,500 yards from scrimmage and their defense has also improved in every phase and when they get a turnover, even better things happen for them. The Superdome will be rocking on Sunday when they welcome the Panthers back to town once again this NFL season.

Panthers Player To Watch: Greg Olsen– When he went down, they were still able to get the ball down the field and Ed Dickson filled in nicely for the injured Olsen. I remember after they played the Jets, I saw a video of Cam with Greg and he said: “wait until I get my guy back”. Well, your guy is back and he needs to take pressure off of you. Greg Olsen is a veteran presence and Cam’s top target, especially with Kelvin Benjamin being traded. When they get into red zone, get him the ball!

Saints Player To Watch: Michael Thomas– Say it with me: You better have game if you have two first names and this guy reminds me so much of a former Saints receiver and that’s Marques Colston, remember him? I make this comparison because just like Colston, he just plays football and he’s silently elevated himself into a number one receiver. He’s a guy that you can get the ball to on third down situations, use him on wide receiver screens and much more.

Final Analysis: This is the third battle between these two teams and both matchups during the regular season favored the Saints and they took both games and outscored the Panthers in both games by a total score of 65-34. In the two meetings, the Saints forced Carolina into six turnovers and that’s been the memo this year, force turnovers and capitalize on the mistakes with their explosive offense. The Panthers need to take care of the football and establish Jonathan Stewart. Each of the Panthers skill position players (Funchess, McCaffrey, Stewart and, Olsen) all need to step up and help their quarterback. If I’m the Saints, I’m still creating those mismatches against Alvin Kamara, rushing Cam and making him a pocket passer and doubling Olsen in the red zone. Drew Brees needs to throw the football down the field especially with Ingram and Kamara drawing so much attention

Prediction: Saints 31 Panthers 24