1:00 PM ET, December 22, 2013
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
It's a pretty straightforward scenario for the New Orleans Saints this week: win and they'll not only clinch the NFC South, but also the conference's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
If they lose, the exact same circumstances will await the Carolina Panthers in Week 17.
After New Orleans' latest road stumble, the second showdown in three weeks between the Saints and Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte will guarantee a playoff spot for the winner while likely dealing the loser a precarious path in the postseason.
New Orleans (10-4) took control of the South with a 31-13 rout of Carolina (10-4) at the Superdome on Dec. 8, but its margin for error took a massive hit a week later in St. Louis.
A Saints win over the Rams would have allowed them to stay in the driver's seat even with a loss at Carolina due to a superior conference record. But after New Orleans committed three turnovers and fell behind by 24 points en route to a 27-16 loss -- its fourth in five road games -- this visit to Carolina may make or break its season.
"We know what we're playing for -- we're playing for the divisional championship and the two seed so it doesn't get any bigger or better than that," quarterback Drew Brees said. "It is going to be a challenge for us. Obviously we understand our deficiencies on the road here the last couple of trips. It is great motivation for us to really hammer down this week, find ways to improve and get better."
While the Saints were coming up empty in St. Louis, Carolina bounced back at home with a 30-20 win over the New York Jets. Coach Ron Rivera, though, admits he got a bit caught up in checking the out-of-town scoreboard.
"A few too many times, to be honest with you," Rivera said. "I did get distracted a couple of times. ... I did hear the crowd cheer and when I looked up they showed the (Saints') score, so that caught my attention."
Carolina will win the South and the conference's second seed with a victory Sunday and a win at Atlanta or a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17. Should the Saints win, they'll be able to rest some starters in their finale with the No. 2 seed locked up.
A loss could be especially damaging for the Panthers. Carolina could still clinch a playoff berth with losses by Arizona and San Francisco, but it also could find itself in trouble should it head to Week 17 tied with the 9-5 Cardinals due to its head-to-head loss.
Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers two weeks ago, bringing his totals at home to an NFC-best 23 TDs, an NFL-best 73.2 completion percentage and a 122.5 passer rating.
On the road, Brees completes just 63.4 percent for an average of 6.94 yards per attempt, nearly two fewer than at home, with an 86.3 QB rating and seven of his 10 interceptions.
Perhaps it's not surprising then that the Saints average 32.9 points at the Superdome and 18.4 on the road -- 27th in the league.
"This is not a 'show up on Sunday and play' sport," tackle Zach Strief said. "So, when you go on the field and put that on tape and play like we have on the road it's absolutely concerning."
Strief will have a new partner at tackle in Carolina. Left tackle Charles Brown was benched in St. Louis after committing a key penalty and playing a part in Brees being sacked four times, so the Saints will give rookie Terron Armstead the job of protecting Brees' blindside against a Panthers defense that leads the NFC with 45 sacks.
"These aren't decisions you make for effect," coach Sean Payton said. "You don't do that. At least we don't."
Carolina's only loss in its last 10 games came at the Superdome, and it has been especially dominant at home. The Panthers have won six straight there by an average of 18.7 points.
Cam Newton was sacked five times at New Orleans and an NFL-high 28 on the road, but he's been sacked just 10 times in seven home games.
Like Brees, big plays have been a much more common occurrence for Newton at home. He's averaged 8.36 yards per attempt in Charlotte with 12 plays of 25-plus yards. He has only one in his past three road games while throwing for 4.84 yards per pass.
Newton has averaged 9.35 yards per attempt, hit five plays of 25 or more and accounted for five total touchdowns while going 1-1 at home against New Orleans.
He ran for 71 against the Saints last season at home, and it won't be a surprise to see Carolina attack New Orleans on the ground. The Panthers have averaged 178.5 yards rushing -- 5.7 per carry -- in their past 10 games against the Saints, but only ran 13 times after the first quarter in the first meeting.
"It was a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go," Newton said after the Dec. 8 loss. "The best thing about this is we have an opportunity to face this team again in two weeks (at Carolina). Those guys just were better than us today.
"Are they better than us? No."
More from ESPN.com
Beckham, Brees set 1-handed catch record
New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees set a Guinness World Record on Thursday for most one-handed catches in a minute, completing 33 on the ESPN Super Bowl set in Scottsdale.
Brees nails PSIs on show: Couldn't do it in game
Drew Brees and Conan O'Brien had some fun with "Deflategate" during the New Orleans Saints quarterback's appearance Wednesday on O'Brien's talk show.
Benson seeks dismissal of lawsuit by family
Tom Benson's attorney fought back in court Tuesday, asking that the lawsuit filed against the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner by his daughter and grandchildren be dismissed.
Saints' Graham dunks on crossbar after TD
If it were a regular-season game, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham would be digging into his wallet in the coming days for his touchdown celebration Sunday night at the Pro Bowl.
Recent Blog Posts
New Orleans Saints
- Saints mailbag: Why can't Saints develop linebackers?
- Roger Goodell supports Tom Benson, says he's in 'complete control'
- 2015 Hall of Fame finalist: Morten Andersen
|Avg Points Allowed||19.1||14.7|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||NO|
|Rush Yds Allowed||NO|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Carolina leads 14-12|
|Dec 8, 2013||NO 31, CAR 13|
|Dec 30, 2012||NO 38, CAR 44|
|Sep 16, 2012||NO 27, @CAR 35|
|Jan 1, 2012||NO 45, CAR 17|
|Oct 9, 2011||NO 30, @CAR 27|
|Nov 7, 2010||NO 34, @CAR 3|
|Oct 3, 2010||NO 16, CAR 14|
|Jan 3, 2010||NO 10, @CAR 23|
|Nov 8, 2009||NO 30, CAR 20|
|Dec 28, 2008||NO 31, CAR 33|
|Oct 19, 2008||NO 7, @CAR 30|
|Nov 25, 2007||NO 31, @CAR 6|
|Oct 7, 2007||NO 13, CAR 16|
|Dec 31, 2006||NO 21, CAR 31|
|Oct 1, 2006||NO 18, @CAR 21|
|Dec 18, 2005||NO 10, CAR 27|
|Sep 11, 2005||NO 23, @CAR 20|
|Jan 2, 2005||NO 21, @CAR 18|
|Dec 5, 2004||NO 21, CAR 32|
|Oct 26, 2003||NO 20, CAR 23|
|Oct 5, 2003||NO 13, @CAR 19|
|Dec 29, 2002||NO 6, CAR 10|
|Nov 10, 2002||NO 34, @CAR 24|
|Dec 2, 2001||NO 27, CAR 23|
|Oct 14, 2001||NO 27, @CAR 25|
Cam Newton is 4-5 for 57 yards on 1st down in the first half, but 1-4 for 4 yards with an interception and a sack after 1st down.
Drew Brees was sacked five times in the first half Sunday against the Panthers. Brees' previous season high for sacks in a game was four (three times).
New Orleans fails to score an offensive TD in the 1st half of consecutive games for 1st time since 2010 (Weeks 7 and 8).
The Panthers went 0-of-9 on third down Sunday, becoming the first team to win without a third down conversion since the 2011 Panthers (Week 16 vs TB). Newton was 1-of-5 passing with three sacks on third down Sunday.[+]
Cam Newton Passing by Down Sunday
Drew Brees was sacked six times and put under duress an additional nine times Sunday. Brees hadn't taken more than four sacks in a game this season, and the 15 dropbacks under pressure were his second most in a game this season. Brees failed to replicate his Week 14 success against Carolina's four-man rush.[+]
Drew Brees Facing 4 or Fewer Pass Rushers - This Season vs Panthers
ESPN Stats & Information