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Saturday, December 7, 2013
W2W4: Panthers at Saints

By David Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell is treating Sunday night's prime-time game against the New Orleans Saints as a road playoff game.

He should.

The winner between these 9-3 teams will have a one-game lead in the NFC South with three games remaining, albeit one of those is a rematch on Dec. 22 in Charlotte.

The Panthers basically need to sweep the series to have any chance of winning the tie-breaker scenarios for the division title and first-round playoff bye should these teams have the same record in four weeks.

Otherwise, they will be back on the road for a real playoff game.

Here are five keys for Carolina:

Control the crowd: The Saints discovered firsthand what a raucous crowd can do to the offense in a 34-7 loss at Seattle on Monday night. The Superdome can be just as loud, and I'm sure Saints fans will be ready. Carolina needs to score early with a long, sustained drive that has been its staple on the road to silence a rowdy Mardi Gras-type crowd. Remaining committed to the run game will be essential. Getting ahead also will help slow the New Orleans pass rush that isn't nearly as effective playing from behind.

Forget history: The Panthers can't let themselves get psyched out reading about all the success New Orleans has had at home. But it is impressive. The Saints have won 14 straight home games with coach Sean Payton on the sideline. Quarterback Drew Brees is 10-0 in home prime-time games the past four years, throwing 33 touchdowns to only four interceptions. The Saints are winning those games by an average of 21.3 points a game.

Consistent Cam: I have used this intro before, but never has it been more important for quarterback Cam Newton to have one of his better games. In road games against teams over .500 this season he is 1-1 with a quarterback rating of 10.4 that ranks last among 34 qualified quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Info. My take is he'll need to complete at least 60 percent of his passes and rush for more than 30 yards. If he does that, the Panthers have a chance to put big numbers up against a defense that struggled against another mobile quarterback on Monday night.

Bring the pressure: One of the things that gives Carolina a chance is the pressure its front four gets on quarterbacks. We saw how Brees struggled against that type of pressure from Seattle. Having defensive end Charles Johnson back after missing two games with a sprained knee is key. A stat I can't repeat enough is quarterbacks have a rating of 33.0 when Johnson is on the field, 47.9 when he's not.

Key matchups: Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly won't be totally responsible for stopping tight end Jimmy Graham, who has six games with at least 100 yards receiving this season. He will play a major role in shutting down a weapon at a position where the Panthers have given up big numbers at times this season. But I believe the bigger matchup could be outside linebacker Thomas Davis on Darren Sproles out of the backfield. This is a chance for Davis to show the rest of the country that has ignored him in the Pro Bowl balloting how well he's playing.