Five Things to Watch: Panthers at Saints

1. New faces for both teams:Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore and Panthers tight end Greg olsen, who sat out the teams' two regular season meetings, will return to the lineup for the postseason showdown. Lattimore, who recently became the youngest Pro Bowler in NFL history, will line up across from wide receiver Devin Funchess on Sunday. In 13 games, Lattimore has intercepted a team-high five passes and has yet to give up a touchdown to a receiver in coverage.

"He's a solid guy," Funchess said. "He's going to play his game. He's going to the Pro Bowl. He deserves that, and he's been having a solid year.

"We play at 4:40, so be in for the show."

The opposite sideline will feature Olsen. The tight didn't play in either of the Panthers' losses to the Saints this season after breaking his foot in Week 2. Not only does Olsen provide quarterback Cam Newton with a top-tier target, but he's enjoyed success against the Saints in the past. In the last four games against New Orleans, Olsen has totaled 390 receiving yards on 27 receptions.

2. Record setting Saint:Wide receiver Michael Thomas is seldom mentioned in the same conversation as Antonio Brown and Julio Jones – two receivers widely recognized as the best in the league. Despite recently breaking the Saints' franchise record for receptions in a season, Thomas flies under the radar.

However, when it comes to matchups against Carolina, Thomas is a large target on quarterback Drew Brees' radar. In four meetings since the start of 2016, Thomas has totaled 22 receptions for 303 yards and three touchdowns.

"He runs good routes," cornerback Daryl Worley said. "He's a bigger-bodied guy. He has really good hands. Usually when it's in his radius, he catches it. He catches a lot of contested balls. He's obviously a target that Brees likes because he's dependable." 

Dependable for sure. Thomas has caught nearly 70 percent of the 149 passes thrown his way this season, the third-highest percentage among wide receivers targeted at least 100 times.

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3. Rushing attack is key:All season long, Carolina's coaches have stressed the importance of establishing the running game first and foremost. Not only does establishing the run against the Saints open up the passing game for Newton, but it also keeps Brees on the sideline.

"If you go back and look at some of the games they've lost, they for the most part have lost the time of possession battle which means (the opposition is) keeping Drew Brees off the field by the running the ball, running the clock," head coach Ron Rivera said. "But you need to have a lead to be able to do that, which is a tall order."

The Panthers' lone lead in the two regular season games came courtesy of a field goal at the start of the Week 3 matchup..

4. Superdome sound:The Panthers practiced with simulated dome noise all week, preparing for the first playoff game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since 2011. Widely regarded as one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL, the Superdome's raucous atmosphere adds an extra hurdle for visiting offenses to overcome. 

"The best way to handle that noise is to get up," center Ryan Kalil said. "If you're winning, it will get quiet really quick." 

History isn't in the Panthers favor, though. The Saints haven't lost a playoff game in the Superdome since 1992. However, with that said, two NFC South teams have never been pitted against each other three times in one season. 

"A team beats you twice and you get to play them a third time?" wide receiver Russell Shepard said. "That doesn't happen very often in this league. It's an amazing opportunity."

5. Takeaway trend for Carolina:It's not a coincidence that when Carolina fails to force turnovers, they also fail to win the game. In the Panthers' five losses this season, the defense has only registered two takeaways, in contrast to 19 in the team's 11 wins. 

However, since the Week 13 matchup with the Saints, Carolina has won three of four games and has tallied 10 takeaways, tied for third best in the NFL in that span. As of late, the worry isn't with Carolina's defense forcing turnovers but instead with the offense turning them into points. Those 10 takeaways netted just 23 points off turnovers. 

"We have to go a better job of capitalizing on turnovers," Kalil said. "That's something we that we have not done a good job of this year. The defense has come up huge for us making momentum-changing plays, and then to go three-and-out is not OK."


LAST TIME THEY PLAYED

View the top photos from Panthers vs. Saints by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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