NFL Preview - Carolina (9-3) at New Orleans (9-3) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - In short order, you will find out the identity of the NFC South's best team.
With two meetings scheduled over the next three weeks, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are set to battle for division supremacy as well as a potential first-round bye in the NFC playoff picture.
Things get started this Sunday night in the Big Easy with the sequel set for Charlotte on Dec. 22.
"It's like you're getting the best of the best," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said when talking about this week's affair, which will air nationally on "Sunday Night Football."
"You're going to see Carolina's defense, led by Luke Kuechly, going into the Superdome where we've seen everybody struggle to try and stop that offense with Drew Brees. It's going to be fantastic."
Carolina has won a franchise-record eight consecutive games, including last week's dominating 27-6 victory over Tampa Bay. For their next trick the Panthers will attempt to become just the second NFL team to win nine consecutive this season (joining Kansas City) and the first club to beat Brees and Co. in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton passed for two touchdowns and rushed for another against the Bucs, while Carolina's defense, which leads the NFL in fewest points allowed (157), limited Tampa Bay to 206 total net yards and no touchdowns.
Newton threw for 263 yards with two interceptions while adding 68 yards and a TD on the ground. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. each had touchdown catches in the rout.
"People want to keep pointing at me, but the truth of the matter is our defense is playing lights out and giving us opportunities," admitted Newton.
The Saints, meanwhile, are 6-0 at home this season and Brees leads the NFL with a 122.2 home passer rating, which includes 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
However, New Orleans was blitzed in Seattle on Monday night when Russell Wilson had three touchdowns passes and the Seahawks became the first team to clinch a playoff spot with a resounding 34-7 win over the Saints.
The Seattle defense did its part on Monday, limiting Brees to just 147 yards and a touchdown on 23-for-38 passing, and allowing the Saints to cross midfield just once in the first three quarters while also stopping NOLA twice on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
The seven total points matched the lowest output the Saints have scored since Sean Payton took over the team in 2006, while the 188 total yards accrued were the fewest in Payton-era.
"That first half was real tough and we just couldn't get anything going," said Brees. "We had a bunch of three-and-outs before we had that one drive where we scored. But after that we just couldn't do much at all. We took one in the chin today."
With the loss, its first since dropping a game in New York to the Jets on Nov. 3, New Orleans fell into a tie for first in the NFC South with Carolina, and two games behind the Seahawks for the conference's top spot.
"We'll make sure we'll get the corrections made because there's a lot of things we didn't do well," said Payton. "It's a short week and we have some work to do here."
The Panthers lead the all-time series with the Saints by a slim 19-17 margin after sweeping the season series a year ago.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is your classic matchup of strength versus strength pitting New Orleans' powerful offense against Carolina's league-leading D.
Forget the Saints team you saw in Seattle, this is a totally different bunch on the fast track in the dome. New Orleans is unbeaten and averages 33.2 points a game at home this season while outscoring opponents 199-95 in six contests.
The Panthers, on the other hand, have won four consecutive on the road and their defense is allowing an NFL-low 13.1 points per game and only 289.8 yards per contest, second best in football. Carolina is also the last team to actually beat the Saints in NOLA, earning a 44-38 decision last December.
"There are a lot of things they're doing offensively that make you say, 'Wow,'" Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "A lot of people thought last year that Jimmy Graham had an off-year, but now watching him he looks like he's in the form he was two years ago. Darren Sproles, I've got a bottle of Tums next to me because he is a heck of a football player. And Drew Brees is having a classic Drew Brees season."
Rivera touched on the two players that make the New Orleans offense so difficult to deal with, matchup nightmares Graham and Sproles.
The lengthy Graham has 68 receptions for 988 yards and 12 TDs on the season and six 100-yard games, the most ever for a tight end, while Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 216 catches, 1,872 receiving yards and 16 receiving TDs since 2011.
Helping matters for Carolina could be the possible return of star pass rusher Charles Johnson, who has missed the last two games with a sprained knee. Johnson leads the Panthers with 8 1/2 sacks and since the 2010 season is one of just two NFL players with 40-plus sacks (41.5) and 10-plus forced fumbles (10).
Kuechly, meanwhile, has settled in as the best middle linebacker in the game, compiling 266 tackles since debuting in 2012, the most in all of football over that period.
The Carolina offense isn't nearly as formidable save for the dynamic Newton, who has thrown 19 touchdowns and rushed for six more so far this season. Veteran receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen have been Newton's favorite targets but neither will pop the top off a defense at this stage.
Newton, though, seems to have realized that he can live to play another down so to speak and punting the football isn't the worst thing in the world with his defense.
Taking care of the football is paramount to the Panthers and Newton has done so in recent weeks, although he did throw two picks against Tampa Bay. Overall, Carolina has turned it over just seven times during its winning streak and is one of only five teams with a plus-10 turnover ratio.
"We know that we're going to have to minimize these turnovers," Newton said.
A dismal trip to Seattle and a short week for the Saints was further exacerbated when the team's chartered flight out of the Pacific Northwest was delayed a day.
"It's a setback and now you're on a short week, but we have to make the corrections," Payton said. "We have to quickly get focused on Carolina. They're playing as good football as anybody in the league right now."
The best way to forget about the Seahawks and Seattle is to get back on the horse in the dome and halt Carolina's franchise-record winning streak.
Expect the fast track to be the difference here before the Panthers rebound to hold serve in Charlotte down the road.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 27, Panthers 17