For the third time this season, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers on Sunday take the field against one another. Only this time, it will be the first-ever all-NFC South playoff game.
The Saints swept the regular-season series, including a dominant 21-point win in September, and went on to win the only division sending three teams to the postseason (Atlanta Falcons).
Panthers coach Ron Rivera bluntly summed up the key to the game in three words: “Control the clock.”
The concept is easier to describe than execute, especially against the Saints. Still capable of quick-strike offense with Drew Brees behind center, the Saints are also one of the best offenses in the NFL at meticulously picking apart a defense with methodical, clock-chewing drives.
Running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram each surpassed 1,500 yards from scrimmage, giving Brees outlets at almost every level of the field on any given play.
The Saints rushed for 297 yards in their two victories over the Panthers this season and in their 11 victories, averaged 151.3 rushing yards. In its five losses, New Orleans averaged 81.2 yards.
“They’re putting both guys on the field at the same time now,” Rivera said of Ingram and Kamara. “So they can pretty much do anything with those running backs.”
Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said the pressure falls on the second level of the Carolina defense to stop plays for minimal gains when the opportunity arises. In their 31-21 Week 13 loss to the Saints, the Panthers had 12 missed tackles.
“This week, we’ve got to make sure that we’re really, really good about setting our feet, and making solid tackles,” linebacker Thomas Davis said.
Davis is playing in his 11th playoff game, and defensive end Julius Peppers — who also went to the postseason with the Bears and Packers — will make his NFC-high 19th postseason appearance. It falls to the 37-year-old Peppers to funnel the running game back inside to Davis and Kuechly, while helping heat up the pocket to avoid letting Brees play pitch and catch with wide receiver Michael Thomas.
“They thrive on a lot of different looks,” Brees said.
The Saints aren’t rich in playoff experience, but Brees kept the message constant for his younger teammates.
“I prepare like every game could be our last, or it’s a playoff game or I have something to prove — that I’ve got an edge,” Brees said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, the playoffs are here, let’s ramp it up.’ Things are a little more important. It’s always important. So for me the preparation is no different.”
Defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotuleilei don’t have the 11 sacks Peppers does this season, but collapsing the improved Saints’ offensive line is a big part of their responsibility. Short has two sacks in 10 career games against Brees, who is completing 72 percent of his passes this season. New Orleans allowed only 20 sacks in 16 games.
But Rivera and Short both stressed “moving” Brees is more important than taking him down in some respects.
“You try to find a way to limit him,” Kuechly said. “It’s difficult. He’s Drew Brees for a reason. But if you can get guys up in front of him, it helps you a little bit.”
Quarterback Cam Newton guided the Panthers to a win at New England back in Week 4, but against the Saints he was not consistent. He did, however, correctly predict after the loss Dec. 4 to the Saints that the Panthers would “see that team again.”
This time he’ll have tight end Greg Olsen, who missed the first two matchups with a broken foot. But he also must shake off any remnants from one of the worst games of his career last week. Newton, who is 3-3 in his postseason career, posted a 31.5 passer rating in a 22-10 loss to the Falcons.
“This is when the real football starts,” Newton said. “This is where you’re made or you’re broke — and I look forward to these moments because it brings out the best in the individual because there is so much pressure. And we all know pressure does one of two things. We’re hoping to shine like diamonds on Sunday.”
—By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media