1:00 PM ET, December 30, 2012
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
After disappointing seasons, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are both looking to use their Week 17 meeting to springboard them to better things next year. But it's unclear whether a win in New Orleans on Sunday will help keep Carolina from making sweeping organizational changes.
Since starting 2-8, the Panthers (6-9) have won four of five. They've won three straight by double digits, including a victory against the NFC's top seed Atlanta, but it still might not be enough for owner Jerry Richardson to retain coach Ron Rivera for another year.
Rivera is 12-19 in two seasons at the helm and still has two years remaining on his contract. But even a 7-9 finish would likely be a disappointment for a team that seemed to have a shot at its first playoff berth since 2008-09 after Cam Newton burst on the scene as a rookie last season and the team won four of its final six games.
Rivera said there hasn't been any assurances from Richardson, and the two haven't had any recent discussions regarding his job.
"I think we're doing some really good things and I like the way the guys have stayed focused," Rivera said. "That is very gratifying for a coach knowing that they're hearing the messages the coaches are sending. I appreciate their focus to the details of preparing. We have done a lot of good things."
For what it's worth, many of Rivera's players seem to have his back.
"It is great to fight for a guy that believes in us," Steve Smith said after Carolina's 17-6 win against Oakland on Sunday. "We believe in him. It's just a great way to show our appreciation for someone."
Another decision looming ahead for Richardson is on the general manager front. He hired former Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi as a consultant to help replace Marty Hurney, whom Richardson fired after the Panthers started 1-5. Brandon Beane has served as the team's interim general manager in the meantime, and is considered a candidate for the full-time position.
The Saints (7-8) will miss the playoffs for the first time in four years. New Orleans faced an uphill fight after the team's suspensions because of the bounty scandal, and started 0-4. Despite going 7-4 since, including Sunday's 34-31 overtime win at Dallas during which Drew Brees threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns, the Saints were eliminated from contention due to other results.
Joe Vitt, the team's interim coach in place of the suspended Sean Payton after serving his own six-game suspension, is focused on making this season an outlier among recent years that have been the most successful in the franchise's history. Vitt has one particular goal in mind for the future.
"There's two types of Super Bowl winners: Those that win and those that win one," Vitt said. "And our goal is to win two and we're working toward that goal right now."
New Orleans' defense will try to avoid infamy on Sunday. The Saints have surrendered 6,512 yards this season, 281 shy of the record 6,793 given up by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, which Vitt served as an assistant coach for. New Orleans allows 434.1 yards per game, over 40 yards more than the next worst team.
They have improved recently, allowing 376.8 over the last five games. The Saints' 41-0 shutout of Tampa Bay two weeks ago was the team's first since 1995.
"The main thing for me is we want to get a win," said linebacker Curtis Lofton. "So if we give up however many yards and we get a win, I'll take the W any day. This year has been very different for me and a lot of the guys, you know, giving up all the yards and all that stuff. The first four games was tough, but when you look at us the last seven games, we played great defense."
Taking aim against the suspect unit will be Newton, who recently has more resembled the record-setting rookie of last year. Newton has thrown for 14 TDs and three interceptions over his past eight games, compiling a passer rating of 99.3. His rating through the first seven games was 75.2 as he threw five TDs and was picked off eight times while the Panthers went 1-6.
Carolina had lost four straight in the series before Newton accounted for 324 total yards and two scores in a 35-27 win on Sept. 16. A Saints victory on Sunday would even the all-time series at 18 wins each.
More from ESPN.com
Rivera: Newton on target to start Sunday
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thursday that quarterback Cam Newton is on target to start Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.
Rivera: NFC South champ worthy of playoffs
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera will not apologize for being in the playoff hunt with the team's 5-8-1 record.
Falcons brush off Saints' 'funeral' trash talk
Roddy White and his Atlanta Falcons teammates collectively brushed off trash talk by New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis in advance of Sunday's NFC South clash at the Superdome.
Panthers-Saints: What to watch
After watching film of both teams, Scouts Inc. breaks down key elements of the Week 17 Panthers-Saints matchup.
• Convert third-down opportunities: The Saints are like a fast-break basketball team in that they score a lot of points in order to win games because their defense is statistically the worst in the NFL. Carolina lacks the same kind of offensive prowess and needs to sustain drives and produce points on as many possessions as possible. Look for a lot of option reads mixed in with a high-percentage passing attack in third-down situations for Carolina. Cam Newton needs to convert on at least 45-50 percent of his third-down opportunities for the Panthers to have a chance.
Recent Blog Posts
|Avg Points Allowed||22.7||28.4|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||CAR|
|Rush Yds Allowed||CAR|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Carolina leads 13-11|
|Sep 16, 2012||CAR 35, NO 27|
|Jan 1, 2012||CAR 17, @NO 45|
|Oct 9, 2011||CAR 27, NO 30|
|Nov 7, 2010||CAR 3, NO 34|
|Oct 3, 2010||CAR 14, @NO 16|
|Jan 3, 2010||CAR 23, NO 10|
|Nov 8, 2009||CAR 20, @NO 30|
|Dec 28, 2008||CAR 33, @NO 31|
|Oct 19, 2008||CAR 30, NO 7|
|Nov 25, 2007||CAR 6, NO 31|
|Oct 7, 2007||CAR 16, @NO 13|
|Dec 31, 2006||CAR 31, @NO 21|
|Oct 1, 2006||CAR 21, NO 18|
|Dec 18, 2005||CAR 27, @NO 10|
|Sep 11, 2005||CAR 20, NO 23|
|Jan 2, 2005||CAR 18, NO 21|
|Dec 5, 2004||CAR 32, @NO 21|
|Oct 26, 2003||CAR 23, @NO 20|
|Oct 5, 2003||CAR 19, NO 13|
|Dec 29, 2002||CAR 10, @NO 6|
|Nov 10, 2002||CAR 24, NO 34|
|Dec 2, 2001||CAR 23, @NO 27|
|Oct 14, 2001||CAR 25, NO 27|
Cam Newton finishes up his sophomore campaign with the Panthers this weekend. While his win/loss record hasn't been to his liking, his stats are astronomical. Newton is 1 of 3 players in NFL history to have 3,500 passing yards, 20 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns in his 1st 2 seasons combined joining Vince Young and Steve Grogan. And look at Newton's numbers... he's light years ahead of those two.[+]
3,500 PASS YDS, 20 PASS TD, 10 RUSH TD - 1st 2 NFL SEASONS, ALL-TIME
ESPN Stats & Information