There are four weeks remaining in the regular season of the National Football League, two teams will battle it out down the stretch to see who wins the NFC South. The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers boast identical 9-3 records atop the division. The two teams will face one another twice within the next three weeks, including this Sunday night on Sunday Night Football. The winner of the division will likely be the No. 2 seed in the NFC with the second place team being a viable option for a wild card berth. The Saints currently hold a tie-breaker over the Panthers due to conference record. The Saints are 7-1 in the division, while the Panthers are 7-2.
Carolina Panthers: 9-3, 6-0 Home, 4-2 Road
The Carolina Panthers are the hottest team in the NFL right now, winners of eight straight. This is the longest such streak in the league at this point. Led by quarterback Cam Newton and a very dangerous defense, this team is looking to make some noise in the NFC and make a Super Bowl run. Newton has accounted for 25 touchdowns (19 passing, 6 rushing) this season and has thrown for 2,616 yards and a completion percentage of 61.7. Add in his 447 rushing yards and he has accumulated over 3,000 total yards of offense.
The defense is the best in football, at least according to the numbers. Carolina has allowed a league low 289.8 yards per game, including 80.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the league and has also allowed the fewest points per contest at 13.1. Linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the team with 100 combined tackles. The defense also ranks second in sacks with 39. Charles Johnson leads the way with 8.5 and Greg Hardy has 7 of his own. Getting to the quarterback will be a big key for Carolina when it visits Drew Brees and company.
New Orleans Saints: 9-3, 6-0 Home, 3-3 Road
After a year without head coach Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints are back atop the NFC. The Saints won three straight games before getting shellacked by the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football 34-7. With the loss, the Panthers moved into a first place tie with the Saints. Brees will have his hands full for a second consecutive week as he faces the Panthers defense. Brees is once again amongst the top quarterbacks in the league as he has passed for 3,647 yards, 28 touchdowns (ranks 2nd in the league), eight interceptions and a completion percentage of 68.3. His main target is tight end Jimmy Graham, who is one of the best tight ends in the NFL today. On the season, Graham has caught 68 passes for 988 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The defense is much improved from a season ago under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints defense ranks in the top five in four defensive categories. This defense allows 309 yards per game (5th), 17.8 points per game (4th), 37 sacks, (tied-4th), and 198 passing yards per game (3rd). The defense will have its hands full against the up-and-coming Newton and his ability to beat you with his arm or legs.
This game has all the potential to be a defensive showdown, but at the same time a chance to be a shootout. This game is full of storylines that will draw the fans to televisions. Are the Panthers for real? Will they make a huge statement on national television? How will the Saints respond after getting blown out on a short week? Will New Orleans be able to protect their house for a seventh consecutive time this season? All these questions will be answered Sunday night, but the division will ultimately come down to the final game of the season. Sit back and enjoy not only the game this Sunday, but also how the rest of the season plays out.