by Sharon Thorsland
It’s Panthers-Saints round two, as the Panthers take the prime time spotlight against their NFC South rival Thursday night. Kick-off is set for 8:25 on WBT. These teams met last month, a 41-38 Saints win in New Orleans. Both teams are coming off gut-wrenching losses - the Saints had what would have been a game winning PAT blocked and returned for a safety and fell to the Broncos 25-23. That leaves them at 4-5 on the season. The Panthers dropped a heart breaker to the Chiefs, losing 20-17 on a last second field goal.
It seems like every time these teams meet the Saints have one of the NFL’s best offenses, and this matchup is no different. The Saints boast the league’s most prolific offense, averaging nearly 428 yards and over 29 points per game. As usual, it’s Drew Brees running the show. The 9-time Pro Bowl quarterback has thrown for nearly 3000 yards with 24 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. He’s got a trio of outstanding young receivers, starting with top target Michael Thomas. The rookie leads the team with 51 catches and 5 touchdowns. Second year player Brandin Cooks is a speedster averaging nearly 16 yards a catch with six scores, and third year player Willie Snead has 42 grabs and 4 touchdowns.
And the Saints are getting it done on the ground now as well - Mark Ingram leads the rushing attack, which has improved tremendously since the first time these teams met last month. The Saints have gone from 29th to 16th in the NFL, averaging 105 rushing yards per game. Ingram is an explosive and powerful back, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He teams with veteran Tim Hightower and speedy Travaris Cadet.
The Saints defense has also seen some improvement, although that’s not saying a whole lot. They rank near the bottom of the league in nearly every category, including 29th in total defense, 30th in points allowed, and dead last in passing defense. But they sacked Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian six times, and the rushing defense has improved to 19th in the league allowing 108 yards a game. First round draft pick Sheldon Rankins is back from injury, so are starting cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and Sterling Moore. That’s helped the Saints young secondary, which regularly plays three rookies.
After Sunday’s painful loss to the Chiefs, the Panthers know how big this game is. If they’ve got any chance of making the playoffs, they’ve got to beat the Saints. Not to mention the fact that this is a division game against one of their biggest rivals. So how do they bounce back? “You win the next game,” says Panther receiver Philly Brown. “You win the next game and then after we win this one we focus on the next one. Just keep winning.”