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What to watch: Panthers at Saints

The Panthers haven't technically risen to second place in the NFC South standings at any point since the start of the season, but their late-season push has given them a chance to finish there.

A victory in Sunday's season finale at the New Orleans Saints would earn them at least a share of second place, and they would be considered the second-place team for scheduling purposes.

Three weeks ago, the Panthers were three games out of second place and two games out of third, but that's all changed with Carolina now seeking its first four-game winning streak since 2008.

"It would be a great testament to how far we've come, but it's a heck of a test. This is a good football team on a little bit of a roll as well," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We'll get a chance to measure where we've come."

This time last year, the Panthers closed the season at the Saints looking to win five of their final six games but got blasted 45-17. Here's what the Panthers need to do to win five of six games to close this season.

COOL BREES: Over the last two games, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has averaged nearly 380 passing yards while tossing seven touchdowns against no interceptions.

Brees threw for 325 yards against the Panthers back in Week 2, but it still qualified as a successful day for the Panthers defense. They kept Brees off-balance with a good pass rush in a 35-27 victory, forcing him into a pair of interceptions along the way.

Brees has thrown multiple interceptions in five games this season, and the Saints have lost all five games. Just four teams have fewer than the Panthers' 10 interceptions, but Carolina does rank eighth in pass defense.


SPOT SPROLES: Running back Darren Sproles caught 13 passes for 128 yards in the teams' first meeting. He didn't burn the Panthers with a particularly big pass play, but he kept drives alive.

"He comes out of the backfield, he can run the ball, he's good on screens – I mean he's an all-around player," Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. "He does a lot, and you always have to account for that guy when he's in the game. We're going to need contain him as much as possible."

Eliminating Sproles as an outlet in the short passing game is virtually impossible, but Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis dazzled against screen plays last week.

DON'T DOUBT DEFENSE: The Saints defense couldn't stop anybody early in the season, and they still give up 45 more yards on average than the next-closest NFL team in terms of yards allowed.

But just two weeks ago, the Saints shut out Tampa Bay.

"The last couple of weeks, their defense is playing lights out," Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said. "They goose-egged the Bucs, and they closed things out against Dallas and won that game.

"Their defense is making plays. It can present problems for us if we don't take care of the ball and don't take advantage of opportunities given to us by our defense."

The Saints have forced 25 turnovers, a middle-of-the-pack number, and takeaways can mask other issues.

Carolina's offense has to take care of the ball and take care of business.


HANDLE THE DOME: The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the Saints' passionate fans and its unique acoustics, is one of the NFL's most difficult venues for visiting teams.

Even with a 3-4 record at home this season, the Saints are 29-10 at home over the past five seasons.

The Panthers have won three of their last four road games but last won at the Superdome in 2008.

"We know what we're against," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "We're going into a hostile environment against a very solid bunch. But we're eager to play this game and finish the season off well."

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