CHARLOTTE - Over the last couple of weeks in the NFL, it's become more difficult to predict what will happen on Sunday afternoons. Or Saturdays. Or Mondays. Or Tuesdays.
This is because the COVID-19 Omicron variant is wreaking havoc on teams' rosters.
Take the New Orleans Saints (7-8), for example.
One week after shutting out Tom Brady and the New Orleans Saints, the Saints were soundly beaten, 20-3, by Miami on Monday Night Football.
New Orleans managed just 164 yards of offense as Ian Book started the first game of his career at quarterback.
Let's take a look at the Saints in Week 17.
Prior to Monday's game, the Saints had 22 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian, offensive linemen Ryan Ramczyk and Jordan Mills, linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander and safety Malcolm Jenkins.
As we've seen from around the NFL the last two weeks, several players could all be back by Sunday, some could still be on the list, and others might be added by that time.
The Panthers coaching staff will be throwing darts at a moving board in terms of game planning against such a roster in flux (admittedly, the same goes for New Orleans after the Panthers put six players on the COVID-19 list on Monday).
QUESTIONS AT QUARTERBACK
Even before Book was pressed into service at quarterback on Monday, the Saints weren't necessarily settled at quarterback. Hill started the previous three games, going 2-1 but completing just 52.8 percent of his passes for 197.6 yards per game and a passer rating of 62.6.
In the four weeks before that, Siemian went 0-4 with a 57.6 completion percentage, 231.0 yards per game and an 86.7 passer rating.
At the least, the Panthers won't be facing a passing attack of the likes of Tom Brady, Josh Allen or Matt Ryan on Sunday.
STRONG AGAINST THE RUN
Since Week 9, the Saints boast the NFL's best defensive rush EPA (+47.6), allowing just 3.87 yards per rush while forcing three fumbles and making 40 tackles for loss.
Cameron Jordan has nine tackles for loss to go with a team-high 8.0 sacks and 18 QB hits. Jordan recently cracked 100 career sacks and now ranks 31st in NFL history with 102.5 sacks.
STILL IN THE HUNT
Although they will need some help down the stretch, the Saints are still playing for the final wild card spots in the NFC.
The 49ers, Eagles, Vikings, Falcons and Saints are all within one game of each other and fighting for two wild card spots. Results in divisional matchups in the final two weeks will have a significant bearing on tiebreakers, so the Saints will be very motivated to find a win over Carolina on Sunday.
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.