The Last Word: Panthers at Saints

Max Henson

Offensive key: Taylor Heinicke took way too many hits last week in his first career start and the elbow injury he suffered against Atlanta means undrafted rookie quarterback Kyle Allen is now set to make his first career start. The protection has got to be solid to give Allen a chance when those third-and-long situations inevitably come up.

Defensive key: Rookie linebacker Jermaine Carter and rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden are expected to get quite a bit of work as head coach Ron Rivera takes this opportunity to evaluate some young guys. Both would like to make their case for more playing time in 2019. They'll be tested in the Superdome against the Saints, even if Drew Brees never steps on the field. Playing smart, disciplined football is the first item on the to-do list. And a splash play or two certainly wouldn't hurt.

Gutsy guess: Conerback James Bradberry has been playing at a really high level the past few weeks. He joked that he's always "good for two picks a year," which is indeed what he posted in 2016 and 2017. He's got one interception going into the finale, so that must mean another one is coming against the Saints.

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: Finding a rhythm on offense in the Superdome is never easy even with all hands on deck - much less with an undrafted rookie at quarterback, injuries along the offensive front and questions about how long the team's top weapons will actually play. The best way to get things going might be to rely on something Cam Newton used so well in 2018: the short passing game. Allen can get some confidence by getting the ball into playmakers' hands near the line of scrimmage, and they can get the offense - and the sticks - moving with their legs.

Defensive key: Drew Brees has shown that the Saints offense can put up points with no-names playing notable roles, tossing touchdown passes to four different undrafted players in a victory over the Falcons on Thanksgiving. But can Teddy Bridgewater do the same with Brees on the sideline? Sure Bridgewater has experience, but he has started a game since the playoffs at the end of the 2015 season. A Panthers defense that has lacked a consistent pass rush but that got after Brees and Co. two weeks ago gets a chance against Brees' backup.

Gutsy guess: Two weeks ago, it looked like Carolina's game against the Saints could come down to a kick, but New Orleans won the low-scoring affair with a fourth-quarter touchdown. There are plenty of reasons to believe points could be at a premium in the rematch as well. Look for Chandler Catanzaro, signed to replace an injured Graham Gano in Week 14, to connect on a 43-yard field goal that sends the Panthers into the offseason with a 20-17 victory.

Bill Voth

Offensive key: This game was supposed to decide the division. Instead, it's turned into one where, with each teams' postseason fates already determined, they mostly want to emerge with as few nicks as possible. Christian McCaffrey is 75 yards away from 2,000 all-purpose yards, a mark he'd likely love to reach. But putting him at much of a risk just so he can reach a number isn't wise. I think the Panthers will be smart and play McCaffrey for about a quarter. Giving him a chance to hit 2k and then getting him out isn't key to winning the game, but it is important for both him and the Panthers.

Defensive key: Near the top of the Panthers' to-do list this offseason is to add pass rushing help. It'd be nice if they didn't have to only depend on free agents or the draft. Young linemen Vernon Butler, Efe Obada, Bryan Cox Jr. and Marquis Haynes had opportunities this season to emerge as pass rushers. The sparks were few and far between. Depending who's active Sunday, the guys in that group have at least one more chance to show they could be a productive part of a rotation in 2019.

Gutsy guess: With McCaffrey likely playing a limited role and Kenjon Barner now on injured reserve, Cameron Artis-Payne and Travaris Cadet will carry the bulk of the load in the backfield. I say Cadet will find the end zone for the first time since 2016 when he scored four times for the Saints.

The Panthers lead the all-time series against the Saints, 24-23. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.

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