The Last Word: Panthers vs. Saints

Bill Voth

Offensive key: The Saints are allowing a league-low 77.6 rushing yards per game, but a lot of that has to do with facing a league-low 21.4 attempts per game. New Orleans also leads the league in time of possession, so it's easy to see their secret to success. Keep the ball on offense, score – a lot, and force opposing offenses to abandon their run games. In the Panthers' six wins, they've averaged 31.0 rushes. In their seven losses, that average dips to 20.7. So they need to stay patient, stick to the run game and put together some long drives.

Defensive key: The Panthers' defense has had trouble getting off the field during this five-game slide, especially on third-and-longs. Now they face the league's top-rated passer on third down. Drew Brees has a 68.4 completion percentage with nine touchdowns, one touchdown for a 113.1 passer rating in third-down situations. This sure would be an ideal week for the Panthers to figure out their third-down woes.

Gutsy guess: Cornerback James Bradberry clearly isn't a ballhawk, but he has had two interceptions in each of his first two seasons. Through 13 games this year, he's still looking for his first pick. He's sure to get plenty of chances while covering Michael Thomas, whose 102 receptions are good for second in the league. Anyway, yeah, this is the week Bradberry finally gets on the pick board.

Max Henson

Offensive key: Can't kick field goals and expect to beat a team like New Orleans - the NFC scoring leaders with 34.4 points per game. Carolina needs to maximize every red zone opportunity against the Saints, who are allowing touchdowns on 69.6 percent of red zone trips on the road (8th worst in the NFL). If the Panthers can do that, and if they can force the Saints to play from behind a bit, they've got a chance to pull off the upset.

Defensive key: A strong start. The Panthers defense has given up a touchdown their first time out each of the past two weeks. Get a stop early, get the Monday night crowd into it and start to build some energy and belief. Carolina is 5-1 at home this year, so there's reason to be confident. The defense lives by Thomas Davis' "defend our dirt" slogan and they need to set that tone early. If the high-powered Saints get into a rhythm, it can become a long night.

Gutsy guess: Quarterback Cam Newton was riding a six-game streak with a passer rating over 100. Then the last two games against the Bucs (66.2 rating) and Browns (70 rating) happened. I predict he'll be up above the century mark versus New Orleans in a game where he has to be at his best. Question is, will his best be enough?

McCaffrey carries the ball against New Orleans

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: The last time the Saints saw Christian McCaffrey, he was turning a short pass into a 56-yard touchdown that nearly turned the tide in the teams' NFC wild card showdown. McCaffrey's enjoying an amazing second season and has been particularly potent the last three games, piling up 294 rushing yards, 26 catches for 205 yards and five touchdowns. Oh by the way, the Saints have the stingiest run defense in the league.

Defensive key: Keeping with the running game theme, the Panthers kept Alvin Kamara under wraps in the playoff game - after being bulldozed by him in both 2017 regular season meetings. Kamara is having a great season but has been relatively quiet of late - and despite plenty of production he just one play that's gained 20-plus yards in the past 10 games. Keeping Kamara quiet is a key first step for keeping the Saints from breaking out as an offense.

Gutsy guess: The Saints are 11-2. The Panthers are 6-7. Carolina has lost five games in a row overall and lost all three games against the new and improved Saints last year. So guess what? So what? Panthers win.

The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 25-28. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.