Since sweeping Panthers, Saints have been so-so

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Rushing attack regressing?

Rookie phenom Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram are the first running back tandem in NFL history to each record at least 1,500 scrimmage yards in the same season. But since combining for 145 rushing yards against the Panthers in Week 13, the Saints' ground game has regressed. Over their final four regular season games, New Orleans rushed for only 507 yards, seventh-fewest in the league over that span.

A major reason for the dip came in Week 14 against the Falcons when Kamara exited early in the first quarter with a concussion. And as their 2-2 record over the past month shows, much of the Saints' success depends on a solid run game. Expand the view to a season-long look and you'll see that of the six games the Saints failed to rush for 100 yards, they lost four times.

But the concern for Carolina is the Saints totaled more rushing yards against the Panthers than any other team this season. In Week 3 New Orleans ran for 149 yards, and 10 weeks later, it was 148. Those represented the two worst performances of the season by Carolina's rushing defense.  

Thomas heating up

While the Saints' ground game has slowed down, Michael Thomas ramped up his production over the past month. 

The second-year wideout, who averaged 72.9 yards per game through Week 13, averaged 92.5 in his past four games. Those 370 receiving yards were third-most in the league over that span. That could be a problem for the Panthers, who have struggled to slow Thomas. 

In their four meetings since the start of 2016, he's totaled 22 receptions for 303 yards and three touchdowns. 

Takeaways in bunches

The Saints' improved defense went on a turnover tear over the past month to finish inside the top-10 in takeaways. They've forced 10 turnovers since Week 13, with a league-leading nine interceptions. 

Three of those were grabbed by cornerback Marcus Lattimore, the leading candidate to win Rookie Defensive Player of the Year. Lattimore totaled five picks in the regular season, but the Panthers didn't have to deal with him in either meeting. That's because injuries forced him out of both contests.

On Sunday, Lattimore is expected to line up across from Devin Funchess

"He's talented, he's long," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Monday, "he plays with that confidence that the good ones play with."

Penalty problems

Penalties really hurt the Saints in their past two losses. 

Against the Falcons in Week 15, they were flagged 11 times, with nine of those gifting Atlanta a first down. Then, in their loss to the Buccaneers this past Sunday, the Saints were called for seven penalties, one of which negated a key first-down pick up by Kamara.

"We gain 12 yards and all of sudden that's coming back because we weren't set. Things that, at this stage in the season, we have to get cleaned up," head coach Sean Payton said. "We had two different wide receiver penalties from guys moving. I mean it is stuff that needs to be cleaned up because it will get you beat."

The Panthers, meanwhile, were flagged a league-low 83 times this season.

View the top photos from Panthers at Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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