Panthers Divisional Stretch Begins: Saints Up First

At this time last season, the Panthers were entering week 13 at 3-8-1, and yet somehow still in the hunt for the division crown. Now a year later, the Panthers have reeled off an NFL record tying 15 consecutive regular season wins, and this week they will face the division team they got this monster rolling with, the New Orleans Saints. 

The Panthers dominated the Saints all over the Superdome en route to a 41-10 win that started this euphoric run of regular season victories. Little did we know, at the time, the Panthers would claw their way back to win the NFC South, earn a playoff game IN Charlotte, and ultimately fall in the divisional round to a great Seattle team. No one could have seen this coming, but here we are, a year later at 11-0 and number one in the NFL. It is simply beautiful. 

Don't bask in this too much just yet though. There is still a lot of football left this season. The back stretch for Carolina happens to be the most important.  All but one of the Panthers remaining five games are against divisional opponents. The lone opponent outside the division is on the road in Week 15 against what always seems to be  a team surging late--New York Giants. But we shouldn't look too far ahead as fans. Just like the Panthers mentality, let's focus on this week.

Similar to the Panthers a year ago, the New Orleans Saints enter this week 13 match up against our Panthers at 4-7, coming off a bad loss to the Texans 24-6. J.J. Watt and the Texans defense were able to disrupt Drew Brees all day and ended his streak of 45 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. 

The Saints era of Drew Brees and Sean Payton is unraveling faster than they can hire defensive coordinators. Yes, coincidentally that's been the biggest reason for their struggles again this season. They are 31st in the NFL in defense allowing 419 YPG and an NFL worst 30.8 PPG.  Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was recently relieved of his duties in light of this.

Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly

The Panthers offense matches up well against this Saints defense across the board. The Saints are ranked 30th against the run allowing 134.5 YPG. This fits in nicely against the NFL's 4th ranked rushing attack in the Panthers, averaging 138.9 yards per game. Through the air, Saints rank 31st in passing defense, allowing 284.2 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks. Cam Newton and the Panthers receivers could have a big day despite being ranked 29th in the NFL in passing at 209 YPG, a statistic tempered by Carolina's success running the ball. This passing offense has been more effective than expected. So far this season, Shula is picking and choosing when to throw and when to use Cam's arm for the big play downfield. The Panthers have had nice success with the play action pass, specifically. Look for Shula to keep it up this week.

As we well know, rankings and stats can easily get thrown out the window in divisional games. The rivalries and familiarity of the opponent, usually makes for a competitive game. We also know that you can't count the Saints out when a healthy Drew Brees is in the pocket, evidenced by New Orleans passing offense ranked 3rd overall with 308 YPG.  It's another stat that is somewhat skewed because New Orleans is always playing from behind. 

All in all, I believe the Panthers shall once again "Own the Dome." I think our linebackers match up well against their tight end passing game and Josh Norman didn't have a problem locking down Brandin Cooks in the first match up. I wouldn't be surprised if the Saints kept it close in the first quarter, but then I see our running attack and defense wearing them down the rest of the game on the way to 12-0.

PREDICTION: Panthers 30-Saints 16

By Tripp Morgan
Follow him on Twitter @TrippMorgan6