Struggling Panthers aim to stay in NFC South race

( - The simple fact is that regardless of record, one team from the NFC South is going to get into the playoffs.

Both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers still have a chance at grabbing that spot by way of a division title and the two rivals meet this Sunday at the Superdome with a lot on the line.

No team in the division has a winning record, with New Orleans being tied with the Atlanta Falcons for first place with matching 5-7 records. Carolina is an unimpressive 3-8-1 on the campaign, but there are still four games to be played and a victory over the Saints would keep the Panthers in the running for first place.

Only Tampa Bay at 2-10 figures to have no shot at winning the NFC South crown.

"Whichever team gets into the playoffs there is going to be no apologies for it," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. "That's part of the game. You play the game that you play, they fall the way they may.

"Believe me, I think New Orleans is a good football team, as I do Atlanta, and I think we're still a good football team."

The Panthers didn't look like a very good football team when they lost their sixth game in a row last Sunday with a 31-13 setback to the Minnesota Vikings, who blocked a pair of punts they returned for touchdowns.

Cam Newton completed 18-of-35 passes for 194 yards with a touchdown and an interception for Carolina, which is 1-8-1 since beginning the season with consecutive wins.

Carolina tallied 348 yards, outgaining Minnesota by 138, but its first six points of the game came on Graham Gano field goals before Newton completed a 32-yard touchdown pass to Philly Brown in the third quarter.

"We need to do a better job of scoring touchdowns when we get into position," said Rivera. "We had two chances early in the game, but had to settle for field goals. Touchdowns in those situations could have changed the complexion of the game."

The Saints had little trouble scoring touchdowns this past Sunday in Pittsburgh as Drew Brees threw five scoring passes to five different receivers in a 35-32 win over the Steelers.

Brees finished with 257 yards for the Saints (5-7), who put a three-game losing streak to rest. He recorded the seventh five-touchdown, zero- interception game of his career, an NFL record.

"My process doesn't change regardless of whether people are singing my praises or telling me I can't play anymore. I really don't care," said a defiant Brees, addressing rumors from earlier in the week that the Saints are looking to draft his replacement.

Mark Ingram racked up 122 yards on 23 carries, while Kenny Stills posted 162 yards and a score on five receptions. Marques Colston, Benjamin Watson, Nick Toon and Erik Lorig added a TD catch apiece.

The Saints trail 20-19 in their all-time series with the Panthers despite a 28-10 victory in Carolina on Oct. 30. New Orleans hasn't swept its season series with Carolina since 2011.

Ingram keyed the Week 9 win with 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns.


Brees once again has the Saints' offense in top form, with the club ranking second in the NFL with 430.3 yards per game. New Orleans also is third with 303.9 passing yards per game, but the emergence of Ingram, who leads the NFL with 608 rushing yards since Week 8, has balanced out the attack.

Brees has thrown for over 300 yards with at least four touchdown passes in three straight home games versus the Panthers, posting a 129.8 passer rating.

One key to slowing down the Saints offense is the play of Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads his team with 125 tackles and posted two sacks against the Vikings.

Brees said it is rare that a middle linebacker like Kuechly can impact a quarterback, but the young playmaker does it well.

"And for being such a young player too, you can see just how knowledgeable he is about the game and about his opponent," added Brees. "On each and every snap he is getting guys lined up. He is making adjustments. He is anticipating where the ball is going, run pass he's as good as he is in the run game. Really he is a total player."

Carolina's 21st-ranked offense has not been as effective, with Newton posting a 78.9 passer rating on the season while getting picked off 11 times to 13 touchdown passes. He also ranks second on the team in rushing with 342 yards behind only Jonathan Stewart (408 yards).

Stewart had 85 yards on 12 carries versus the Vikings, good for a 7.1 average per carry and Newton added 49 yards on nine carries, but DeAngelo Williams suffered a fractured right hand in the game after logging 21 yards on seven carries.

Williams can play through the injury as long as the swelling isn't too bad, but its another blow to an inconsistent ground game. Fozzy Whittaker would see more carries behind Stewart if Williams can't perform.

Not only that, but the Panthers started a different offensive line for a sixth week in a row versus the Vikings, with Mike Remmers making his first start at right tackle with Nate Chandler lost to a knee injury.

Carolina, though, was able to post 178 yards rushing against Minnesota and New Orleans ranks 23rd against the run.

"He played to his strengths," Rivera told his team's website of Remmers. "He's got good footwork, good hand placement and he moves well. He's a smart, crafty guy. He understands what we're doing. He did some good things. We did some things to help him as well, and as a whole I thought the unit did a nice job."

Two of the league's top tight ends will be on the field in New Orleans.

The Saints' Jimmy Graham is tied for the NFL lead among tight ends with 65 catches, is second with nine touchdowns and fourth in yards with 670. Graham has a touchdown in six straight versus Carolina.

Greg Olsen of Carolina, meanwhile, is second in his position with 778 yards and fourth in receptions with 61 to go along with five TDs. He is on the verge of a third straight 800-yard season.

The Panthers held the Vikings to 210 yards last weekend, but will be better tested by Brees this weekend.

"Playing in the (Superdome) is a challenge and we will have to be at our best," noted Rivera. "We have shown the ability to play well, but have not been able to do it consistently enough and will need to do that against a very good football team."


It's a miracle that both of these clubs still have a shot at the playoffs, but that is how the cards have fallen.

Though a Dec. 21 home test with Atlanta figures to be the key game down the stretch, New Orleans can't look past Carolina.

"It starts with this game. You want to build on the way we played this week," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "I think that as we hit this final four game stretch, paying attention to details, correcting mistakes, film study, it's all the little things I think that go into the overall success."

Success hasn't followed the Panthers, who haven't won since Oct. 5, and asking their struggling offense to keep pace with the Saints may be too much to ask.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 31, Panthers 17