And then there was one. After Week 12 the Carolina Panthers now sit alone atop the league as the only remaining unbeaten squad and will look to improve on that mark on Sunday as they travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints.
A Thanksgiving Day blowout of the Cowboys is evidence of the improvement of this Carolina team that looks locked and loaded for the stretch run. Now beating teams in convincing fashion, the Panthers have put things together on both offense and defense with their young leaders Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly leading the way.
The Saints have been up and down with a mix of good and bad performances along with one consistent aspect; that being a dreadful defense ranked as one of the worst in the league.
In their earlier matchup this season, Carolina came away with a tight victory over a Saints team that was without Drew Brees. Although he’s getting up there in age, the veteran quarterback can still air it out with the best of them and will make this a tougher matchup than it may appear.
Here’s what to keep an eye on for the Panthers in round two against the Saints.
Offense's Time to Shine
Newton and the Panthers’ offense has turned it up a notch as the season has progressed and seems to have built up solid chemistry with each other allowing for solid production and this week against one of the worst defenses in the league they’ll want that to continue.
The Saints defense ranks 31st in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed, 30th in rushing yards allowed and dead last in points per game allowing a whopping 30.8 points per contest. All this means that Carolina’s offense has an excellent opportunity to move the ball and put points on the scoreboard.
Newton and his receiving corps will have a chance to build even further on their chemistry against this weak secondary that allowed quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota to throw for over 300-yards and 4 scores. And running back Jonathan Stewart will likely have ample opportunities to grind away as he has done this season now sitting with the third highest rushing total in the league at 832-yards.
The Panthers were still figuring things out in their first meeting in Week 3 and with their offense improving and the New Orleans defense regressing it could be a big day for this unit.
Accounting for the Brees
As previously mentioned, New Orleans was without Brees in the first matchup and even with Luke McCown performing solidly, the veteran will pose a much more difficult threat this time around.
Brees has done all he can for the Saints offense that has been shaky for much of the season. He currently has the fifth most passing yards in the league and is completing over 68% of his passes. New Orleans has steered away from the pass-happy team it once was though and thus Brees must make do with the fewer opportunities and Carolina will need to focus on limiting the production from those opportunities.
Even though the Panthers don’t have a league leading sack leader they still have managed the third most sacks in the league with 33 on what has been a stellar group effort to this point. Kony Ealy has stepped up this season and Charles Johnson can make up for time lost in this one. The secondary for Carolina will also need to be on high alert although that has not been an issue as they have been one of the most solid groups on this Panthers defense led by Josh Norman and Kurt Coleman.
With Brees at the helm the Saints offense is always a threat to show out and the Panthers need to make it their primary focus to stop him from doing so.
Where It Began
These 2015 Panthers are tied for the longest winning streak in NFC history with 15 regular season games won from the end of last year to this point and it all started against the Saints in the Super Dome.
Since that point last season when the Panthers were 3-8-1 this team has been on an absolute tear and is continually proving the doubters and naysayers wrong week in and week out.
Regardless of records or who’s favored though, divisional matchups always hold a bit more meaning and thus this will be no easy out for Carolina.
The Saints home field advantage isn’t as great as it once was but the Super Dome can still give opponents more than they can handle and a chance to knock off the last unbeaten will likely have them chomping at the bit.
The Panthers though are as well equipped to handle this pressure as anybody. Head Coach Ron Rivera has instilled a “one game at a time” mentality within this team and even with 16-0 on everyone’s mind and random factoids thrown at them each week, they have kept a level head and will absolutely need it here in New Orleans and as the final stretch approaches.