Posted on January 4, 2018, by Travis Pulver
Oh, what a difference a year can bring. In 2016, the New Orleans Saints struggled to win games because their defense couldn’t stop a Pop Warner scout team offense. The Carolina Panthers were hit with the dreaded Super Bowl hangover and finished last in the division. Both teams were not very good and didn’t look close to becoming playoff-worthy teams.
But this season, saw both teams take a dramatic turn for the better. New Orleans figured out how to play quality defense, discovered a run game, and won the division. Carolina found its mojo and played like a team that deserved to be in the playoffs.
Sunday, they’ll play each other for the third time this season in the NFC Wildcard game for the right to move on to the next round. New Orleans won the first two. So—who’s going to win this time?
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For years, the Saints have been known as a pass-happy team that couldn’t run the ball if their collective lives depended on it. Their defense was one of the worst in football as well. They won what games they did because Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. But they were not winning divisions let alone Super Bowls, so something had to change—and did.
They developed a running game behind Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara and developed a good defense. When they need him to, Drew Brees can still get the job done with the passing game. But the recipe for victory now involves a dominant run game and stifling defense.
It certainly worked the first two times the Saints and Panthers played. New Orleans ran for 149 yards in one game and 148 in the other. Brees had 200+ yards passing in each and did not throw a single interception.
While the Panthers were able to run for 100+ yards in both games (112 and 132), Cam Newton couldn’t do much with the passing game (less than 200 yards passing in both games; three interceptions in one). The defense wasn’t necessarily great, but it certainly wasn’t bad.
If Carolina is going to win, they are going to have to do a better job of finding the cracks in the Saints defense. Their own run defense has done a good job of late and well enough throughout the season to rank third in the league (88.1 yards/game allowed).
When they are able to control the tempo of the game with their rushing attack, they are tough to beat. But when they can’t and are forced to lean on the passing game—like in the first two games against the Saints this season – they are in trouble.
Cam Newton’s game worked fantastic in college, and it has had its moment in the NFL as well. But the bottom line is that his insistence on leading the charge in the running game does more harm than good. The Panthers have one of the more predictable offenses in the NFL thanks to him.
Teams know they can count on him to try and impose his will on the defense. He will always look to make the play himself rather than give anyone else the opportunity if he can avoid doing so. That makes him and the Carolina offense predictable. Defenses don’t have to worry about Devin Funchess, Greg Olsen, or Jonathan Stewart. All they need to do is keep Newton from getting on track. Disrupt his game, and you disrupt the entire Carolina offense.
New Orleans succeeded in doing so the first two time they played Carolina. There is no reason to think they can’t do it again. The Saints are favored by seven and will likely win by at least that.