CHARLOTTE – The Panthers have one last game on deck for the season, wrapping it up with a divisional matchup on the road.
Carolina (6-10) travels to New Orleans (7-9) to play Sunday at 1 p.m. in Caesars Superdome, looking to end on a better note than last week's sour road loss at Tampa Bay.
The Saints enter their last matchup of the season on a three-game winning streak, claiming victory over Atlanta, Cleveland, and Philadelphia following their Week 14 bye.
The Panthers won their first matchup against New Orleans, 22-14, in Week 3 with a different head coach, starting quarterback, and lead running back. They'll also be facing a different quarterback in New Orleans, as Andy Dalton has taken over the Saints' offense since Week 4 in place of Jameis Winston.
Here are five things to watch in Week 18:
MONITORING KEY INJURIES
The Panthers' injury report wasn't a particularly long one this week, but some important pieces on defense and offense were added late and will be questionable for the Saints game.
Defensive end Brian Burns (ankle) didn't participate in Friday's practice after he landed on Thursday's injury report, and running back D'Onta Foreman (knee) was limited Friday. Interim coach Steve Wilks said both Burns and Foreman's statuses will be "game-time decisions."
"When you ask those guys, in regards to wanting to play, they would tell you that they want to play," Wilks said. "And we're going to make sure that if they're healthy, they can and they will. And if they're not, we want to make sure that we're smart enough not to put them in harm's way. So we'll wait and see exactly what happens on game day."
Burns characterized his ankle injury as "one of those nicks and bruises" he has dealt with throughout the season, tweaked during the week before New Orleans. He gave
"(I'm) hopeful," Burns said when asked if he'll be available Sunday. "But right now, I'm just in the training room trying to get it right, do everything I can for Sunday."
If Burns isn't healthy in time, Wilks said to expect more opportunities for late-game force Marquis Haynes Sr. and rookie Amaré Barno in his place. Haynes returned a fumble for a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter of the last Saints' game.
RETURNING TO THE RUN
Even if the Panthers have to go without Foreman, they'll want to establish their characteristic run-first offense against the Saints' 21st-ranked rushing defense, allowing 127.9 yards on the ground per game.
Carolina's running back tandem put up a franchise-best 320 yards rushing against Detroit but were halted in their last game against the Buccaneers. They put up just 74 yards on 22 attempts in Tampa Bay, with Foreman held to 35 yards on 13 attempts and Hubbard neutralized on the ground, taking three carries for just 12 yards. The Panthers are averaging the NFL's 12th-best rushing offense, running for 127.4 yards per game.
The Panthers successfully ran the ball against the Saints last time and put up 145 yards on the ground. But that was before the Christian McCaffrey trade.
McCaffrey accounted for 108 of those yards, while Foreman received no carries. Hubbard tallied 25 yards on three attempts in Week 3 against the Saints.
PREPARING FOR TAYSOM HILL
The Panthers know the challenge that awaits with New Orleans' versatile offensive weapon Taysom Hill, who took a season-high 14 rushing attempts for 46 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia last week.
Hill, a tight end/utility man for the Saints, has put up 551 yards rushing this year with seven touchdowns and added another 76 yards on eight catches with two receiving touchdowns. The former quarterback has also completed 13-of-19 pass attempts for 240 yards and two passing touchdowns this season.
"He creates a different element in the things that they do offensively with him," Wilks said. "So you've got to make sure you have that zone-read quarterback option, where everybody is really doing their assignment, locked in and focused, eyes in the right spot. So it creates a different element for you. But it's something that we definitely have to work on to the details."
Hill was limited in practice throughout the week with a back injury and has been ruled questionable for the Saints' season finale against the Panthers.
Against the Buccaneers, Sam Darnold was sacked twice, including a late strip-sack deep in Carolina territory last week. And the Panthers' offensive line will be rechallenged in New Orleans against one of the NFL's top-performing pass-rushing units.
The Saints have come down with 46 total sacks this season, ranked fifth in the league, and boast the third-best passing defense, allowing 193.9 pass yards per game.
Carolina will want to look out for defensive end Cameron Jordan, who became New Orleans' all-time sack leader last week after getting to Philadelphia quarterback Gardner Minshew three times in Week 17. He leads the Saints with 8.5 sacks this season, followed by linebacker Kaden Elliss with 7.0 and linebacker Demario Davis with 6.5.
LAST CHANCE FOR STATISTICAL MILESTONES
Wide receiver DJ Moore is 122 receiving yards away from totaling his fourth-straight 1,000-yard season. Moore put up his third 100-yard game of the season last week at Tampa Bay, hauling in six catches for 117 yards, his second-highest mark this season, against the Buccaneers.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson needs two more tackles to reach 130 this season, which would make him the fourth player in franchise history to record a season with at least 130 tackles. Thompson recorded 12 tackles in Tampa Bay, his fifth game in double digits this season.
If Burns can play in New Orleans, he'll have a chance to tie the franchise single-season sack record with 2.5 sacks against the Saints. Burns is at a career-best 12.5 sacks this season, and if he gets to 15.0, he'll tie Kevin Greene (1998) and Greg Hardy (2013) in the Panthers' record books.
The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 27-29. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.