Carolina Panthers: Drew Brees

Drew Brees and Cam NewtonAP PhotoDrew Brees' Saints won the first meeting handily, but Cam Newton's Panthers won't be intimidated.

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.

 
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One thing you can count on in politics and sports: Something you say one day is going to be brought back up again if it is remotely controversial or inflammatory.

Brees
Mitchell
It happened Wednesday to Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell when he was reminded about calling New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees soft.

Mitchell made the comment on a Fox Sports L.A. podcast after the Saints defeated the San Francisco 49ers 23-20 in Week 11. It was in reference to a late sack of Brees in which safety Ahmad Brooks was penalized for a hit to the head and neck, negating a fumble.

"The thing that I hated about the play -- the whole thing -- and this is what these offensive guys are doing: They’re kind of running with it," Mitchell said on the podcast. "Drew Brees is throwing a fit in the postgame interview saying how he got hit in the chin and he was dazed, and all this other stuff. And it’s like, 'Dude, the replay clearly shows he did not even touch you in the chin.'

"Stop being soft, get up off the ground. You fumbled the football, that’s why the only reason you were acting like you were hurt, is so you could draw a flag."

So naturally, as the Panthers (9-3) prepare to face Brees and the Saints (9-3) on Sunday night in New Orleans, the comments resurfaced.

"I don’t really think he’s a soft player," Mitchell said Wednesday. "Obviously, he’s a very, very, very good quarterback, and I have a lot of respect for what he’s done as a player and what he’s done in this league.

"It was really just more of a comment on the rule changes. It was really a 15-minute interview where someone took 45 seconds and made an article out of it."

He should have expected it.

Checking NFC South QB snap counts

August, 27, 2013
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Last week, we made a big deal about how Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman had taken so few snaps in the first two preseason games.

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.

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