Ask Bryan: Defense will be fine

How do you feel about the defense after the Saints game? – Logan via Twitter

I'll say this: Even after all the success New Orleans offense enjoyed Sunday, when the Saints got the ball back with 1:05 left, needing a field goal to tie, I had confidence that Carolina's unit would come up with a stop. That's because this team finds different ways to win, and both the offense and defense tend to step up when most needed – even on their "off" days.

The defense, still third best in the NFL in terms of yards allowed, will be fine. The last time the Panthers had a top-three unit, in 2013, the Saints scored 31 points on them in the Superdome. In fact, in the five meetings there in the Ron Rivera era, the average final score has been Panthers 32, Saints 31. The Panthers' other NFC South foes haven't put up such numbers, with Atlanta averaging 21 points when Carolina visits and Tampa Bay averaging 17.

That's not to say that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was accepting of what happened Sunday. He was disappointed that the secondary got caught peeking at quarterback Drew Brees – a master manipulator in the pocket – and got beat over the top. But all it becomes is another teachable moment without the regret of a loss.

If the Panthers continue winning, which we all hope they do, does Riverboat rest the starters in Week 17? I'm worried about the chemistry that could potentially be lost with such a long break. – Joey in Hollywood, Calif.

Rivera hesitantly addressed that hypothetical and other playoff-related questions Monday, saying he would tend toward playing starters (at least some) in that scenario.

"The reason I would is because I was on a team that had done the same thing and we didn't (play the starters), and that cost us in my opinion. I thought we were rusty," Rivera said. "If we do get in that situation, the goal isn't to go 16-0. The goal is to win the Super Bowl, and so we've got to be smart about that."

In 2009, when Rivera was defensive coordinator for a San Diego Chargers team assured of a first-round playoff bye heading into Week 17, the Chargers played most of their starters for just a quarter (Graham Gano kicked two field goals for Washington, but Mike Tolbert's touchdown catch with 35 seconds left won it for the Chargers). Two weeks later, the 13-3 Chargers fell to a N.Y. Jets team that was 9-7 in the regular season.

It's always a tricky situation where hindsight always plays a big role. If the team in question loses its first playoff game, its Week 17 personnel plan is scrutinized regardless of what it is. But it's a good problem to have at this point because it means you're well on your way to a successful season.

If the playoffs started tomorrow, what NFC team do you think would cause the most trouble for us in the divisional round? – Winston in Charlotte

My answer could change multiple times over the next month, but for now I'd look out west. The Panthers and Arizona Cardinals are solid favorites to earn byes into the divisional round, in which case they couldn't face each other until the NFC Championship. So I'd have to go with old foe Seattle, which much like last year has overcome an early-season swoon to look more like the team that has represented the conference in the Super Bowl two years running.

There's also a possibility that the Panthers could face a division foe in the divisional round, which always presents a unique challenge. Tampa Bay, which has won four of its last six games – including a blowout victory at Philadelphia – is in the playoff chase with three very winnable games up next before closing the regular season in Charlotte.

Does Jake Delhomme, the leader of the Super Bowl XXVIII team, have anything to say about Carolina now? – Earl in Bristol, Va.

I don't have Jake on speed dial, but a few weeks back, Panthers.com did post a question-and-answer session with Delhomme in which he talked about the then-unbeaten Panthers. Still applies.

Week 13: Saints vs. Panthers

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