Saints vs. Panthers preview

Welcome to Survivor, NFC South.

The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints meet at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night in a matchup of the front-runners in a messed-up division.

The Panthers (3-4-1) lead the Saints (3-4) by .009 -- and they're 1-4-1 in their past six games. New Orleans is the NFC South's hottest team, with a one-game winning streak.

Atlanta (2-6) hasn't won since Sept. 18. Tampa Bay (1-6) has only won once, on Sept. 28. Amazingly, the Falcons and Tampa Bay aren't out of contention.

But this is about the showdown for first place. ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett are here to break it down for you:

Newton: Mike, is the NFC South really so bad that this game could be critical to who wins the division?

Triplett: First one to .500 wins! I would absolutely call this game critical, because I think these are the only teams with a real shot to win the South. I believe the Saints are better than their record indicates, and their potential was on full display Sunday night against Green Bay. Drew Brees has been better than people realize this year, and the Saints' run game has been as good as ever in the Brees-Sean Payton era.

But the defense remains a big question mark. And the Saints' schedule actually gets tougher during the second half of the season. So it might truly be a race to eight or nine wins between these two teams, making the head-to-head matchups vital.

The stat that stands out to me is that the four NFC South teams have the four worst defenses in the NFL, based on ESPN Stats & Information's defensive efficiency ratings. Let me ask you my own "are they really this bad" question. What happened to Carolina's defense?

Newton: The Panthers' defensive players haven't shown up on milk cartons, but they were AWOL until Sunday's 13-9 loss to Seattle. Honestly, this is the sixth straight week I've been asked that question. It's a legitimate question, but the answer is the same: Defensive end Greg Hardy is on the commissioner's exempt list and three-fourths of the secondary had to be replaced. Cornerback Josh Norman brought some attitude back to this group when he replaced Melvin White on Sunday. As a unit, they swarmed to the ball and covered up for each other's mistakes, like they did a year ago. Can they keep it up against New Orleans? I'm skeptical. But if they do, they'll have a chance to win this game and the division.

The Saints appeared to have found a running game with Mark Ingram. How much more dangerous does that make this offense, which appears to be coming into its own?

Triplett: The entire run game has been improved dating back to last year, no matter who's carrying the ball. But Ingram certainly took it up a notch Sunday with 172 yards -- the most by any Saints back since 2003. And, yes, that makes the Saints even more dangerous, since their passing offense is still loaded as well, with Brees heating up and Jimmy Graham getting back healthy and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks adding a dynamic new element. Against Green Bay, Brees was 7-of-7 for 144 yards on play-action passes, including three second-half touchdowns.

I wonder if Ingram can turn around and do it again on such a short week. But I see that Carolina's defense ranks last in the NFL in yards per rush. So it's probably a matchup the Saints will look to exploit.

Speaking of up-and-down Heisman Trophy winners, what should the Saints expect from Cam Newton this week? From afar he looks like the same guy they faced in Week 16 last year who's capable of three quiet quarters and one game-changing drive.

Newton: Yeah, but last year he had a defense that allowed him to be quiet for three quarters. Actually, Newton has thrown the ball better than ever. Now that he's running again, it's giving offensive coordinator Mike Shula more flexibility on the play calling. The issue hasn't been Newton. The issue has been an offensive line that -- besides having four undrafted players starting -- has been plagued by injuries. Newton also has been without his top three running backs (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert) for much of the season, due to injuries. Williams returns this week and Stewart looked good Sunday, so I look for the Panthers to give the Saints a heavy dose of read-option.

I can't let you get away without asking if playing on the road -- where the Saints are 0-4 this year after winning only one of their final six road games last season -- has become mental for New Orleans?

Triplett: That remains the great mystery. I have no idea why the Saints have become such a drastically different team away from home over the past two years. It didn't used to be this big of an issue. And even when they come out with great energy and start fast, they've been blowing games in the final minutes. They were leading Detroit by 13 points with less than four minutes left before collapsing. They've blown three leads in the final two minutes on the road this year. And they did the same thing at Carolina in Week 16 last year.

But I don't think it's an insurmountable mental hurdle. The Saints proved their resilience/stubbornness last week when they finally had that breakout performance against Green Bay at home. And they remain confident that they're close to a breakthrough on the road. They know they need to prove it, though.

Who's the X factor in this game that we haven't talked about? Kelvin Benjamin? Luke Kuechly? Someone Saints fans might not know much about?

Newton: Kuechly had an amazing 24 tackles against the Saints here last season and Benjamin is having a pretty good rookie season. But I'm going with tight end Greg Olsen. He was having a career season until Seattle held him to one catch. He still leads the team with 42 receptions and the Panthers would like to show the rest of the country that their tight end deserves some Pro Bowl consideration. Look for Carolina to toss in a couple of tight end screens that have been so effective. Also look for Olsen to be a bigger part of the game plan in the red zone, where the Panthers scored only six points on three trips against the Seahawks. Statistically, it looks like the Saints are vulnerable.