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What to watch: Panthers at Saints


With a playoff berth out of reach, the Carolina Panthers can only say, "Wait till next year."

The Panthers, however, aren't waiting until next year to play like a playoff team.

"We want to end on a high note – that would be big for us," said linebacker Dan Connor, whose Panthers will wrap up the season Sunday at the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints. "We're playing a Super Bowl-caliber team, so to end with a win against someone like that would really carry over to the offseason."

The Saints (12-3) enter the game on a seven-game winning streak – a streak matched only by the New England Patriots – and are looking to earn a bye in the NFC playoffs.

The Panthers (6-9), however, are one of just seven NFL teams to win at least four of their last five games and are teaming with confidence. Carolina lost a Week 5 meeting to New Orleans 30-27.

"We can play with these guys – there's no ifs, ands or buts about it," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "Going into the offseason, we need this victory to solidify what kind of team we are and what we're capable of."

Here are some keys if the Panthers hope to end the season with their fourth consecutive road victory.


ROUGH ROAD: Any road victory is impressive, but winning at New Orleans this season would be special.

The Saints haven't lost at home all season and it hasn't been close, with six of their seven wins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome coming by double digits.

"They're a fast team, and the field turf helps them. There are also no elements you have to worry about, no wind," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "And there's the crowd, a tremendous crowd that's behind them.

"Ever since Coach (Sean) Payton has gotten there and Drew (Brees), they've developed that rapport with the city. It's been tremendous for them, and that's what we're hoping for here."

HOLD ON: The Saints offense, on pace to became the most prolific in NFL history, can't be completely stopped.

The Panthers, however, can aim to slow it down at opportune times.

In the Saints' three losses and three closest victories, kicker John Kasay has booted 14 field goals. In the other nine games, he's totaled 13 field goals.

The Saints will move the ball, but the Panthers have to stop them from moving it over the goal line too often.


STAY IN THE RUNNING: DeAngelo Williams rushed for 115 yards in the teams' first meeting on just nine carries.

That's an eye-popping average of 12.8 yards per carry, but more carries this time around might give Carolina more of a chance of winning.

Williams, Newton and Jonathan Stewart combined for 22 rushes in the first meeting, yet New Orleans still led in time of possession 34:40 to 25:20.

The Panthers can put up points via the ground – they've moved up to third in the NFL in rushing offense – and their defense could use as much recovery time as possible between Saints drives.

TAKE HEED, TAKE CARE: No one really talks about the Saints' defense, but Rivera is.

"The thing that people overlook is that they're playing pretty good defense," Rivera said. "I don't think they get enough credit because people are always talking about the offense, but remember that you've got to get the ball back in the offense's hands to do the things that they've done."

The Saints are tied for last in the NFL in takeaways with 14, and after a poor start the Panthers are now tied for the 10th-fewest giveaways with 21.

Still, any turnovers are tough to overcome against a team with the type of offense the Saints possess.


X-FACTORS: Speedster Darren Sproles is a potential difference-maker for the Saints in the run and pass game as well as on kickoff and punt returns. He's averaging 9.6 yards per punt return with one touchdown and 27.2 yards per kickoff return.

Panthers rookie Kealoha Pilares, however, is not far behind at 26.3 yards per kickoff return, including a 101-yard touchdown as well as a 76-yard return – both on the road.

The Panthers need to at least break even on special teams in order to win their finale.

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