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.