Carolina Panthers: New Orleans Saints
“I mean, that speaks volumes, when you have a team down and it’s late in the fourth quarter and you’re still trying to throw the ball deep."
The Saints had the ball for 13 plays in the fourth quarter. Nine were pass plays, and another was going to be before the Panthers sacked quarterback Drew Brees for a 9-yard loss.
According to the NFL game summary, the longest completion was for 22 yards, and that described as a short pass over the middle to tight end Jimmy Graham.
Graham caught an 8-yard touchdown pass on the next play to make it 31-6.
Carolina answered with a touchdown to make it 31-13. The Saints ran for no gain on the first play of their next series, Brees was sacked and then completed a 9-yard pass to running back Pierre Thomas on third-and-24 following a delay-of-game penalty.
Brees took a knee on the game’s final two plays.
Davis still believed what New Orleans did in the fourth quarter was a “sign of disrespect."
“As a player, you’ve got to go out and compete,’’ he said. “You can’t sit back and think that they’re going to feel sorry for us. We had three or four quarters to get it done the right way. If they get a big lead, shame on us."
Coach Ron Rivera said he hasn’t reminded his players of the fourth quarter in New Orleans last season.
“I haven’t had to," he said.
Rivera said he doesn’t particularly like it when a team keeps throwing late with a big lead, but noted that goes back to individual philosophies.
“It ticks me off, but hey ... we’ve got to do something about it," he said. “I’m not going to tell him how to run his football team and he’s not going to tell me how to run mine."
There was more evidence of New Orleans throwing deep in the fourth quarter of a 45-17 victory over Carolina in 2011. The score was 38-17 when Brees threw deep to wide receiver Devery Henderson.
The Saints put their backup quarterback in halfway through the quarter.
Rivera said he wasn’t aware of how the late-game philosophy of New Orleans coach Sean Payton compared to others.
“I know this," he said. “Offensive coaches are going to do what offensive coaches do. They’re going to run their offense."
The NFC South too shall pass.
Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.
The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.
First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.
Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?
Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.
David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.
Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.
Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.
@PatYazESPN Jake Matthews. He instantly makes the line bigger and more physical. Matt Ryan may actually have time to get rid of the ball.— James Niemeyer (@jrniemeyer) June 10, 2014
What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?
McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.
Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.
Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?
Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.
@DNewtonespn OG and OT, biggest concern on team IMO is protecting Cam— William Harkness (@NCBillyHarkness) June 6, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.
Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.
Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.
Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.
@vxmcclure23 I think William Moore will start getting Natl recognition after this season and appearance on Hard Knocks.— Tootie Quivers (@TootieQuivers) June 13, 2014
What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?
McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.
Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.
Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.
Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.
@MikeTriplett 1.Saints-more talent allaround 2.Bucs-sleeper, good coach, talent 3.Falcons-improved, still struggle 4.Panthers-lost too much— Brad Powell (@PowellBrad) June 11, 2014
In terms of popularity, that is.
In ESPN's latest FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver and Ritchie King came up with the most popular North American professional sports teams between the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the English Premier League, according to the number of Google searches they generate.
For my purposes, I focused on the NFC South. The Saints came in 29th among all the leagues with a Google traffic rating of 1.78. Carolina, the reigning NFC South champion, was next at 1.42, followed by Atlanta at 1.19 and Tampa Bay at 0.91.
None of these compare with the Dallas Cowboys, the top NFL team with a rating of 4.45. And the Cowboys rank third overall behind the New York Yankees (5.83) and Boston Red Sox (5.69).
But for a small-market team, Carolina's numbers were respectable with 12 teams falling below them. Only 13 NFL teams ranked above a 2.00. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks came in at 1.84.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, who came into the NFL in 1995 with Carolina, ranked last among NFL teams at 0.64.
If you like numbers and ranking as I do, you may enjoy looking at the complete rankings. Here's the link to Silver's story: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/theres-a-big-five-in-north-american-pro-sports/.
Unless, that is, your furnace has been broken since Thursday in the NFC South city that is being bombarded by Winter Storm Pax that at this moment has no rival.
It all began in Charlotte, three miles from my freezing abode. The person in charge of the Carolina Panthers' official Twitter site tweeted a picture of snow blanketing Bank of America Stadium.
Winter is coming. pic.twitter.com/2MdfyAme6i— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) February 11, 2014
Then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who perhaps are stinging from a couple of losses to the NFC South champion Panthers this past season, tweeted a picture of the entrance to One Buc Place.
According to my trusty weather app, it is 72 degrees and sunny in Tampa. It is 30 and snowing in Charlotte.
And if anybody cares, it is 49 and dry in my house.
Not to be outdone, the Atlanta Falcons got into the mix by tweeting a picture of quarterback Matt Ryan, known as "Matty Ice."
Ryan did indeed have rather cold performances against Carolina and Tampa, going 1-3 against his rivals, including six interceptions in the three losses.
The Bucs apparently thought that was the message, reminding us in a tweet including a picture of cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Revis, by the way, had no interceptions against Atlanta or Carolina this season. But don't let facts get in the way of a good tweet.
The Panthers retaliated in this now Twitter weatherfare by challenging the Bucs and Falcons to a snowball fight. They even brought New Orleans into the mix, suggesting the Saints and Falcons might have to carpool.
That could take a while if Atlanta becomes gridlocked for 24 hours like it was a few weeks ago when Winter Storm Leon passed through.
Sorry, that was cold.
Atlanta, in an attempt to forget a 4-12 injury-plagued season, began looking ahead to 2014 with a forecast tweet.
The Falcons forgot to mention their not-so-hot defense.
Sorry, cold again.
Not to be left out, the Tampa Bay mascot that refers to himself as @TheCaptainFear joined in.
To which the Panthers tweeted -- and this may have been the best of all -- "Ice Up Son!"
In case you hadn't heard, this was the message Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith gave to New England cornerback Aqib Talib during a Monday night victory when Bank of America Stadium wasn't covered in snow.
Ice Up Son! RT @THECaptainFear I wanna join the snowball fight but it hasn't snowed in Tampa since '77. I could get ice from the fridge?— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) February 11, 2014
Yeah, baby, it's cold outside.
And if you're writing this blog, it's cold inside, too.
Round 2 of the NFC South heavyweight battle between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints takes place Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
The Saints won Round 1 by knockout, 31-13 two weeks ago at the Superdome in New Orleans. They made the NFL's second-ranked defense look less than average and totally shut down the Panthers in the red zone, where they had been so effective.
Will this be a repeat? Or will the Saints' road woes continue?
The division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs are on the line between these 10-4 teams, assuming the winner follows up with a win in the regular-season finale. ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Saints reporter Mike Triplett are here to break it down.
Newton: So, Mike, as I recall, you said in the press box after the first meeting between these teams that New Orleans should be able to sweep the series. After Sunday's loss to the Rams, a loss that strengthened the argument that the Saints don't play well on the road, has your opinion changed?
Triplett: Well, David, that game was so long ago that there's no way I can be held to anything I said at the time. Seriously, though, it is tough to make any definitive statements about the Saints right now. They clearly looked like the superior team against the Panthers two weeks ago, but it's impossible to ignore how poorly they've played away from home. And now you have to imagine that their confidence will be shaken when they hit the road again -- even if they don't express that publicly.
I do think the Saints have the higher ceiling among these two teams. And if they both play up to their potential, that means the Saints can win. But when you throw in all the demons they'll be facing (the road, potentially bad weather, a team that can run the ball and force turnovers), it becomes a toss-up.
I'll throw the same question back at you. After the Panthers' Jekyll-and-Hyde display the past two weeks, which team shows up on Sunday?
Newton: Hmm. So long ago? Interesting bail, Mike. Not sure I'd call it Jekyll and Hyde either, because the Panthers have lost once in their past 10 games. I'd say the Saints are more Jekyll and Hyde with their home-versus-road issues.
But you're right, Carolina was horribly outclassed in the first meeting. The thing about that is a lot of teams have been outclassed in New Orleans. That's why I don't think it was a devastating loss. And the Panthers were able to bounce back, even if it was against the Jets. Where the loss could work in their favor is they know where they have to adjust. They began to adjust in the second half, when they held New Orleans to 10 points. There's no sense of panic or fear they can't turn things around this time. I sense they are relishing the opportunity to prove themselves.
I see the Saints have released their kicker and replaced their left tackle with a rookie. Not really the stuff you expect from a Super Bowl contender at this time of the year. What do you read into that?
Triplett: It was definitely a unique shake-up at this time of year -- especially the switch at left tackle. And I think both moves are pretty telling of where Sean Payton's mind is at during this playoff push. He was pretty candid after the St. Louis loss, admitting that he still doesn't fully know the makeup of this current team, and that he can't just count on getting the same results as in past years. And all season long, he has been hyper-focused on making sure he's leaving no stone unturned in improving in all areas. Drew Brees has made that point a few times when discussing what's different with Payton after his suspension.
I think Payton believes this team has championship potential -- but also sees how close the Saints are to letting a good opportunity slip past them.
How about on-the-field adjustments? What are the one or two areas where you see the Panthers being able to clean up mistakes that doomed them in the first meeting?
Newton: The biggest cleanup has to be with the secondary. They weren't physical against the Saints' receivers, letting them get into their routes too easily and run free. There also was a bit of miscommunication, particularly in the second quarter, when Brees had the Panthers on their heels with three touchdown passes. The Panthers rectified things a bit in the second half with a few timely blitzes -- more than normal for them -- to force Brees to move in the pocket and get out of his rhythm. I suspect you'll see a bit of that as well this time. But mainly I see them challenging the front four for more pressure, particularly at left tackle, whether it's Charles Brown or somebody else.
I'm still perplexed by the wide differential in New Orleans' scoring at home versus the road (32.9 versus 18.4) and the turnover ratio going from plus-5 at home to minus-5 on the road. I've heard the coach-speak explanation. Now I want to hear the Mike-speak.
Triplett: Wish I were smart enough to figure it out. I think the main difference is that they become a "superhuman" team at home, as former linebacker Scott Shanle explained it earlier this year. On the road, they're simply human. They've actually had the best regular-season road record in the NFL dating back to 2009 (24-15). This didn't really turn into an epidemic until this year. But I've got to think it's messing with their confidence now, too, in addition to the crowd noise and the weather conditions they sometimes have to deal with.
This game will be even more of a test than most road games. The Saints have definitely been affected by cold weather and wind and rain over the years, which makes sense since their strength is the passing game. The worse the weather conditions on Sunday, the more it has to favor a Panthers team that can run the ball so effectively.
Earlier this year, I thought the Saints were looking more prepared than ever to win a game like this, thanks to the patient offense we saw in wins at Chicago, against San Francisco and at Atlanta, plus the most physical defensive front they've had in the Payton era. Lately, I'm less certain.
The hottest team in the NFL, the Carolina Panthers, will ride an eight-game winning streak into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night to take on the New Orleans Saints in a battle for NFC South supremacy.
Both teams are 9-3, and this will be the first of two games between the division rivals in the next three weeks. The division winner almost certainly will be the NFC's No. 2 seed.
The Saints lost their shot at the No. 1 seed Monday night when they got destroyed by the Seattle Seahawks 34-7. That doesn't bode well for New Orleans because the Panthers are a very similar team to Seattle (stifling defense, strong run game, dual-threat quarterback).
But that loss was on the road. And the Saints are a totally different monster at home, especially in these prime-time games. The Saints have won 12 straight night games at home, including the playoffs, by an average of nearly 20 points per game.
One way or another, somebody's hot streak will have to cool off Sunday night. ESPN.com's Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Panthers reporter David Newton break down the matchup.
Triplett: David, I don't even know where to begin with these Panthers. It seems like every unit is playing great. I guess the most important question is whether you think Carolina's defense will continue to be so dominant against the Saints' offense inside the Superdome.
The Saints have especially had trouble when defensive backs can get physical with their receivers and Jimmy Graham in coverage. What are the Panthers doing so well on defense, and how do you see them attacking the Saints?
Newton: As former Panthers tackle and current Arizona defensive line coach Brentson Buckner told me a few weeks ago, the Carolina defense is "built to travel." Don't forget this group went to San Francisco and held the 49ers to nine points and 151 total yards. The Panthers likely get sacks leader Charles Johnson (knee) back at defensive end and Chase Blackburn (foot) back at linebacker, so they should be even more stout than they've been the past few weeks.
I suspect they'll do much the same as Seattle did, pressuring Drew Brees as much as they can with the front four and letting linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly try to shut down Darren Sproles and Graham. The only weakness this group really has shown is a tendency to occasionally let a receiver get deep, but otherwise, everything you've heard and read is true. The defense is tough to run on and stingy in the red zone.
Speaking of defense, the Saints must have a hangover from what Russell Wilson and the Seahawks did Monday night. They have another mobile quarterback coming in Cam Newton, who has led the team in rushing three straight games. Are we looking at a repeat?
Triplett: I have no doubt that Newton will cause problems. He has been a thorn in the Saints' side at times. But I think the Saints will make Newton even more of a priority than they made Wilson (against Seattle, the Saints were focused first on stopping running back Marshawn Lynch -- one of the few things they did well).
I'm not sure exactly what to expect in this matchup. The Saints' defense has been hit or miss against similar-style teams (bad against the Seahawks and Jets, good against the 49ers and Bills). However, I trust that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will have a good plan in place after learning from the mistakes made at Seattle. The Saints' defense has mostly been a strength all season. Monday's loss was a rare flop -- especially when it came to all of the pass-coverage breakdowns.
Tell me more about Cam Newton. I've always seen the talent, obviously. Has he been better than ever during this win streak?
Newton: I feel like a broken record on this one, but it has been a matter of maturing and learning to take what the defense gives him instead of forcing things and being a one-man show. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula has been great for Newton. Shula is dedicated to having a more traditional running game, even though at times the past few weeks he has had to rely on Newton as his lead rusher because teams have stacked up to stop the backs. But the commitment to the run has helped keep Newton in manageable third-down distances. He has responded with one of the best third-down quarterback ratings in the league. To me, that as much as anything shows how he has grown.
With success has come confidence, and Newton has some of that swagger back you saw when he was in college. When he makes a bad play, he doesn't pout. He moves on and usually makes up for it. He's really developing into a complete quarterback.
As long as we're talking about complete quarterbacks, Brees -- the Seattle game aside -- has been impressive, particularly at home. Has the return of Sean Payton made a big difference?
Triplett: Payton's return plays a big part, but I think it also helps quite a bit that the Saints have such a vastly improved defense. Brees doesn't feel as if he has to do everything by himself -- which was the case more than ever last year, especially since the Saints were trailing in a lot of games.
Payton and Brees are terrific at exploiting and attacking mismatches and finding the open man. However, this season, I feel like they've also been as smart and patient as ever before -- willing to win the low-scoring, clock-control games when needed. Up until Monday night, Brees was having one of his best and most efficient seasons. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him bounce back quickly.
But enough about the star players. Tell me about one or two guys who haven't gotten enough attention for the Panthers' turnaround this year -- and who might step up and make an impact in this game. (For the Saints, I'd say the entire defensive line qualifies, with third-year end Cameron Jordan heading toward his first Pro Bowl and second-year end Akiem Hicks maybe reaching that same level in a year or two).
Newton: Good question. The Panthers are full of unsung heroes, from running back Mike Tolbert and rookie linebacker A.J. Klein to safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
I know you said no stars, but I'll have to go with rookie tackle Star Lotulelei. He has really taken this defense to another level with his ability to cause havoc in the middle. When you look at Carolina's success at stopping the run, in many ways it begins with him. He often demands double-teams that free up players who already are stars -- such as linebackers Kuechly and Davis, ends Greg Hardy and Johnson. And truthfully, Lotulelei will be a star -- if he isn't already. He should be getting serious consideration for defensive rookie of the year. If he has a big game Sunday night, it will cause Brees and the New Orleans offense a big headache.
Triplett: Great line. And interesting to note that the Panthers took Lotulelei with the 14th pick in the draft -- one spot before the Saints took safety Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro hasn't made quite that level of impact, but he has been a big-time asset for them as an every-down player and a versatile weapon who plays all over the field. He'll be one of many guys charged with keeping Newton contained Sunday night.
Well, that trend changed in the exhibition game against Miami on Saturday night. Freeman played 41 snaps (although he was ineffective for most of the game). That means he now has played 62 snaps this preseason. That leaves Freeman tied for 25th among the presumed 32 starting quarterbacks.
Freeman isn’t even the least used NFC South quarterback anymore. That honor now belongs to Drew Brees, who is No. 27 with 60 snaps.
Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 11 with 80 snaps an Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is tied for ninth at 81.