Call me crazy, but I like the Panthers to beat the Saints Sunday.
It is really a shame that the NFC South division has been so strong this season that we wind up with a wild card game Sunday that will look much more like a conference championship match.
You have the division champ Saints and all-pro Drew Brees against the Panthers and Cam Newton, who finished with the same 11-5 record as New Orleans but lost the division tie-breaker by virtue of their two losses to the Saints.
This is the last game of wild card weekend Sunday afternoon, and it will be worth the wait. Two Super Bowl quarterbacks and teams of recent years, and two tendencies that could decide the outcome in the Superdome, where the Saints are 4-0 in the playoffs behind Brees.
The Panthers lost both games to New Orleans by falling behind early and having to play from behind against one of the most potent teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball. The absolute key for Carolina is to get ahead early and control the ball and keep Brees off the field. The Panthers are an NFL best 8-1 in games decided by eight points or less.
So while Newton can get hot with his arm and is always a threat to run, moving the chains with a carefully crafted game plan is the key to a Panthers victory. Jonathan Stewart and rookie Christian McCaffery are big means to that end. We know Stewart can ground and pound it. McCaffery can do it all, slash from the tailback position, run the jet sweep as a flanker and catch the ball on the flank, over the middle and occasionally downfield.
The Saints are explosive with Brees throwing and Mark Ingram running, a team that won eight straight after losing its first two games and holding on to win the division by beating the Panthers and Falcons at home and relegating them towild card status. Again, the Superdome is like their 12th man, which is why Carolina has to learn from the first two games and play smarter.
The Panthers are playoff-tested despite last season’s blip and have guys who can make another run toward the Super Bowl. But they have to do it on the road. Mixing up defenses to try to upset the cagey Brees and take advantage of every scoring opportunity are their paths to victory.
It’s hard in any sport for one good team to beat another three times in the same season. I have a hunch the Panthers won’t let that happen. I like the Cats.