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The Big Easy? Hardly

Posted Sep 21, 2017

Panthers offense could put up big numbers against a Saints defense that's yielding yards by the bunches - but don't count on it.

The Panthers offense is trying to find its footing. The Saints defense is shooting itself in the foot at historic rates.

The 0-2 Saints visit the 2-0 Panthers on Sunday.

Problem solved.

If only it were that simple.

Panthers fans who are happy to be unbeaten heading into Week 3 but not happy about how the offense has looked in the process hope Sunday's showdown at Bank of America Stadium can cure all ills. It certainly could happen – and it would be great if it did – but don't take it to the Bank that it will.

If it does happen, the reasons are self-evident. If it doesn't happen, here are some possible explanations.

1. It's a division game

These teams know each other well, perhaps better than any other two NFC South teams know each other given they've both featured the same head coach since 2010.

Familiarity changes football. Witness last week, when new Bills head coach/former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott helped keep an offense he knows well out of the end zone.

Four of the last seven times the Panthers and Saints have squared off with different win-loss records, the team with the better record has lost – and that doesn't even include these two examples.

In 2015, both teams were 2-0 for their Week 3 meeting in Charlotte, but the Panthers seemed to be in an advantageous position with Drew Brees injured and a McCown under center – Luke McCown. But the career backup played better than his more accomplished brother, and it took a remarkable Josh Norman interception to seal a 27-22 victory for a Panthers team that finished 15-1 (the Saints finished 7-9).

In 2013, the Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games. The lone loss? In New Orleans, and it wasn't even close (31-13 final).

Not saying that sort of thing will transpire Sunday, but just saying that even when division foes appear to be heading in the different directions, familiarity tends to bring them closer on the scoreboard.

2. It's early

The Panthers offense really is a work in progress, so it's not necessarily going to prosper just because it's facing statistically the worst defense in the NFL. The Saints defense too is working to iron things out, and things tend to even out over time. Recent history tells us that, yes, the Saints could end the year with the league's worst defense, but they're not going to give up 30-plus points and 500-plus yards every week.

Know what team ranked last in the NFL in total defense through two weeks last season? That would be the Raiders, whose 1,035 yards allowed are most in the NFL's modern era (this Saints team is second at 1,025). Oakland whittled that down to a respectable 375.1 yards per game by season's end and produced the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Khalil Mack.

The point is that the Saints defense and the Panthers offense will get better in time, but whether the timing will be right for either unit Sunday is anybody's guess. In the Cam Newton era, the Panthers have dinged the Saints for 35 or more points five times; they've also totaled 17 or fewer points four times.

And with Newton still shaking off the rust, favorite target Greg Olsen out and coach on the field Ryan Kalil having not practice this week, it really could go either way.

3. It's football

The cliché "that's the way the ball bounces" works best with a football because when the uniquely shaped ball hits the turf, no one knows which direction it will head.

Here's a little secret about the Madden Matchup simulations we do each week. While we stay true to the initial simulation, guess what happens if we were to run it again? A different score for sure, and a different winner at times. Ten different simulations would bring 10 different outcomes.

Sunday's game, of course, will only be played once, and who can predict how the ball will bounce? The Panthers on paper have every reason to believe their offense could get rolling against a Saints defense that's been getting rolled. But to some extent, it's a roll of the dice.