It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips as the 3-3 Panthers travel to New Orleans to take on the 3-2 Saints on Sunday. Here are five things to watch in the matchup.
Returning to New Orleans
One of the week's biggest storylines has been quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's return to New Orleans. Bridgewater is far from the only member of the Panthers organization with Saints ties. Still, when you're the quarterback, it shines a different spotlight.
The Saints traded for Bridgewater just before the start of the 2018 season, and he spent two years as quarterback Drew Brees' backup. Though they're now divisional opponents, Bridgewater and Saints head coach Sean Payton expressed gratitude for their time together.
Bridgewater learned a lot in his two years with New Orleans, including how to make football fun again. But now he knows how challenging it will be to square off against his former teammates, like pass rusher Cam Jordan.
"Hopefully, he doesn't get the opportunity to hit me," Bridgewater said with a smile.
As well as Bridgewater knows the Saints, they also know him, so that could neutralize any potential advantage for one side or another. As always, Sunday's game will come down to execution on the details.
Defense on third down
Carolina's had defensive issues on third down all season long, entering Week 7 ranked No. 29 by allowing a 50.7 percent conversion rate. Only the Bills, Giants, and Titans have been worse.
That issue probably won't go away this week, as New Orleans has had one of the best third-down offenses. The NFC South foe is No. 4, converting 48.5 percent of its 66 attempts through five games.
Brees has stellar numbers on third down this season, completing 75.6 percent of his passes for 348 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. But of Brees' 21 passes from third-and-7 or more, only seven have resulted in first downs, with two resulting in touchdowns. That means there should be an opportunity for Carolina to make a stop with sound tackling, even if Brees completes a short third-down pass.
Still, that depends on whether Carolina can put New Orleans in those third-and-long situations. As always, preventing the opposition from gaining chunk yardage on first and second down remains paramount.
Red zone offense
The Panthers have put drives together and moved the ball this season, ranking No. 11 at 383.5 yards per game. But they've scored touchdowns on only 11 of their 23 trips inside the 20-yard line, which ranks No. 28 entering Week 7.
If there were ever an opportunity for a get-right game, it could be this week. The Saints' are No. 31 in red zone defense, allowing 85 percent of opponent trips inside the 20 to end in touchdowns. Though New Orleans' 20 opponent red zone trips are tied for 16th most, the Saints have given up the second-most red zone touchdowns with 17. That's despite the Saints playing one fewer game played than many teams since New Orleans had its bye last week.
But just because the numbers look like Carolina could have an advantage doesn't mean that's the way it'll turn out. One way to get better at scoring inside the red zone is to improve the ground game inside the 20. That's easier said than done.
"If there was an easy answer, it'd be fixed already," center Matt Paradis said. "There's a lot of factors, and I think the main thing is we just need to execute better on those downs."
Still, if the Panthers are going to win, they'll need to be at their best inside the 20.
Can Anderson keep it going?
Wide receiver Robby Anderson has been one of the league's best wide receivers through the first six weeks of the season, currently ranking No. 2 in receiving yards at 566. He's already had four games of at least 90 yards receiving, which is tied for the most he's had in one season (2017).
Of Anderson's receiving yards, 235 of the 566 has come after the catch — a rate of 41.5 percent. That shows how much the Panthers value Anderson's ability to catch-and-run on underneath routes, which isn't necessarily a skill he showed off earlier in his career.
"I've always been confident in myself and known what I was capable of," Anderson said. "It feels good to have great players around me (making) me a better player as well."
But when it comes to yards after the catch, Anderson won't be the only talented player on the field. New Orleans' Alvin Kamara has racked up 348 of his 395 yards receiving after the catch this season, leading the league in the category. And Carolina's Mike Davis just edges Anderson for No. 4 in the top five with 236 yards after the catch.
If there's one place Anderson can improve, it's scoring. Though he's second in yards, he's gotten in the end zone only once this season — his 75-yard touchdown in Week 1.
Carolina needs to score more touchdowns, and targeting Anderson in the red zone may be one way to get that done.
How does the secondary fare?
The Panthers were dealt a significant blow in putting cornerback Rasul Douglas on the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday, which means he'll miss Sunday's game.
Douglas has become an integral part of Carolina's secondary since the club claimed him at the start of the regular season. He's started the last five games, recording 27 total tackles and six passes defensed.
With fellow cornerbacks Donte Jackson (toe) and Eli Apple (hamstring) nursing lingering injuries and safety Juston Burris going on the reserve/injured list earlier this week, Carolina's secondary could be particularly young against the Saints. Cornerback Troy Pride Jr. has played significant snaps this season and figures to do so again. Undrafted rookie Sam Franklin Jr. figures to see substantial time at safety to help replace Burris. But Douglas' status paired with Jackson and Apple's injuries could press seventh-round pick Stantley Thomas-Oliver III into duty as well.
The young players will be thrown into the fire, too, squaring off against a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 26-29. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.