It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips when the Panthers face the Saints on Sunday. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
Rookie linebacker Jeremy Chinn has been lining up all over the place all season. So the way the Panthers use him in Sunday's regular season finale against the Saints might not shed much light.
But they're clearly thinking about how to deploy him in the future, and where.
Defensive coordinator Phil Snow casually acknowledged this week what seems obvious, that the 217-pound Chinn might not be built to be a linebacker his whole life.
The second-rounder was a safety at Southern Illinois, but the Panthers had more options in the secondary than they did at linebacker, so they decided to start the process of making him a versatile player immediately.
"The biggest thing we have to decide, we started him in the front seven, and we have packages where he plays in the back row," Snow said of Chinn. "With his body structure and his longevity and that, is that the best thing for him? Should he be a secondary guy that we use down in the box when we need to? That's what have to evaluate.
"I think for Jeremy, the best thing might be to start him in the back and move him up, but we'll see. He has something to say about that, coach (Matt) Rhule does, all of us."
Snow pointed out that other moves will impact part of the decision. When Chinn arrived, the Panthers had a pair of experienced safeties in Tre Boston and Juston Burris. At linebacker, there was Shaq Thompson and not much else that you'd plan around.
Thus, he spent most of his rookie season at linebacker.
Chinn has certainly delivered this year, leading all rookies with 109 tackles, with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and those two touchdowns against the Vikings.
But his lean frame certainly lends itself to a future in the secondary, and his uncle (Hall of Fame safety) Steve Atwater said in November that's where he thought Chinn would eventually land.
The good news for the Panthers is that the decision doesn't have to be either-or. Along with pass-rusher Brian Burns, who has made plays as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end but may be better as a stand-up outside linebacker, the Panthers have the benefit of versatility on defense, and that's something they'll use to their advantage today and beyond.
THIRD DOWN FOCUS
It doesn't take a football genius to realize the Panthers' biggest problem in the first meeting against the Saints.
Simply put, they couldn't get off the field.
The Saints converted 12-of-14 third downs in Week 7, leaving the Panthers with just 43 offensive snaps (between 60 and 70 a game would be considered normal).
That's why Rhule has stressed execution on third down to his defense this week, knowing they can't survive with their thin margin of error if they don't improve.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
They're down to rookie Rodney Smith and Trenton Cannon in the backfield, and Rhule said this week that fullback Alex Armah and wide receiver Curtis Samuel would each have roles in the running game against the Saints.
Last week against Washington, Rhule made getting 35 rushing attempts a point of emphasis. That might not be feasible this week, and they might have to get creative with the offense to keep the Saints guessing.
The Saints won't feel sorry for the Panthers in that regard after star running back Alvin Kamara was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list late in the week.
Kamara was earning his big contract extension (it appears many running backs are, in fact, worth the money), and perhaps on his way to earning multiple postseason honors. He leads the league with 21 touchdowns and is third with 1,688 yards from scrimmage.
The Saints have been without quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Michael Thomas for stretches this year, but losing Kamara might be the toughest to overcome as they point toward the playoffs.
More than ever under coach Sean Payton, they're a running team, though that might be because of necessity than preference. With Brees showing the inevitable signs of age and dealing with injuries, they're averaging the fewest passing yards per game (237.8) since the coach and quarterback linked up.
A BIG FINALE?
For all the challenges the Panthers have faced on offense this year without McCaffrey, they've still produced. And they have a shot at an impressive milestone involving a guy whose future is less-than-certain.
If Samuel gets 70 yards from scrimmage this week (which seems reachable considering the lack of backfield options and his 158-yard game last week), the Panthers will join a select club.
Only four other teams in the Super Bowl era have had four players each top 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a season.
The other four teams to pull off that feat were the 2004 Colts (Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Marvin Harrison), the 1995 Falcons (Eric Metcalf, Craig Heyward, Terance Mathis, Bert Emanuel), the 1990 Oilers (Haywood Jeffries, Drew Hill,
Ernest Givens, Lorenzo White), and the 1989 Washington Football Team (Earnest Byner, Art Monk, Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark).
Building on that next year appears unlikely, as Samuel's becoming an unrestricted free agent in the spring. Past efforts to re-sign him were unsuccessful, and with a number of holes to fill, a third receiver could reasonably be viewed as a luxury for the Panthers.
The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 25-27. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.