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NFL: JAN 01 Panthers at Buccaneers

by Sharon Thorsland

It’s the season finale for the Panthers, who travel to the Big Easy to take on the Saints on Sunday. Just a week ago both teams had high hopes of making the playoffs, but the Panthers loss to the Bucs doused those plans as Tampa Bay clinched the NFC South. So in the grand scheme of things, this game means nothing to either team. But to the Panthers players, it means plenty. “We’re going to out there and fight and try to get second place (in the division),” said Shaq Thompson. “So we’re going to out there and try to win this game, we’re going to go out there and finish.”

Finishing is something interim coach Steve Wilks has been preaching to his team all season. And players are hoping that a win against the Saints will help Wilks earn the Panthers full time coaching job. He’s certainly proved he should get a shot, as the Panthers have gone 5-6 under his watch and made huge improvements in every offensive category since taking over for Matt Rhule, including going from dead last in the league to 17th in scoring and 27th to 6th in rushing yards per game. Is that enough to sway David Tepper? Who knows, but the Panthers are going to do all they can on Sunday to get Wilks another win headed into the off season.

To do that, the Panthers are going to have to slow down a surging Saints team that has won three in a row, including a road win over the Eagles last week. Andy Dalton has taken over at quarterback and has this offense clicking, in spite of missing star receiver Michael Thomas. They’ve still got dual threat running back Alvin Kamara, Swiss-army knife Taysom Hill, and a pair of rookie receivers who are putting up big numbers. First round draft pick Chris Olave leads the team with 67 catches for 982 yards and three touchdowns, while undrafted free agent Rashid Shaheed is an explosive player averaging over 18 yards a catch. Kamara is having a down year by his standards with just four touchdowns, but Hill has picked up the slack – he’s got 10 touchdowns as a running back, receiver and a passer. Hill lines up at running back, tight end, receiver and quarterback, and the Panthers will have to know where he is at all times. “He plays quarterback, throws the ball, he runs, he’s not scared to take the hit,” said Panther defensive tackle Derrick Brown. “He’s a different creature.”

The Saints pose plenty of challenges on defense as well, their 46 sacks are tied for 5th most in the league, and they’ve allowed 18 points or less in their last five games. 12-year veteran defensive end Cam Jordan is still playing at an elite level, he’s got 8.5 sacks. Pro Bowl linebacker DeMario Davis is one of the best in the league, he leads the Saints in tackles and has 6.5 sacks and an interception. Star safety Tyrann Mathieu anchors the secondary, and shutdown cornerback Marshon Lattimore is back after missing most of the season with a kidney injury, he had a pick six in last week’s win over the Eagles. They’ll face a Panther offense that is running the ball well behind D’Onta Foreman, who has 846 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the season. “You know they’ve got a really good defense, they’ve got a lot of good players over there,” said Foreman. “Great defensive line, lot of guys up there that can run sideline to sideline. We’ve got our work cut out for us