The Saints (11-5) already beat the Panthers (11-5) twice to edge them for the NFC South title. But that will mean little unless New Orleans can defeat Carolina for a third time Sunday in the wild-card playoffs.
With both teams losing in Week 17, it set up this “three-match.” After its 0-2 start, New Orleans won at Carolina 34-13 in Week 3. It won almost as convincingly at home in Week 13, 31-21.
Drew Brees has been to and won a Super Bowl, but that was eight years ago, and this is the Saints’ first playoff game in four seasons. Cam Newton just got to and lost a Super Bowl two seasons ago.
MORE: Full wild-card picks, predictions
The Panthers had the No. 4 rushing offense in the NFL during the regular season. The Saints were right behind at No. 5. But with Brees, the Saints were the much better passing offense (No. 5) than the Panthers (No. 28).
Who wins Drew vs. Cam this time? Here are SN’s picks and predictions for the game.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints (-6) picks, predictions
Sunday 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Vinnie Iyer: The Panthers have a mighty run defense that shuts down most teams, but the Saints have had great success against them, like against most opponents, with the 1-2 punch of veteran Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Ingram, Kamara and go-to wide receiver Michael Thomas also have been tough to slow in the passing game, too, especially in the red zone.
As Brees and coach Sean Payton will find similar cracks in the Panthers’ defense to exploit in the third meeting, it will come down to Carolina’s offense trying to control the game with its running game.
The issue with that is New Orleans can commit extra defenders to that and can spy Newton while it trusts its Cameron Jordan-led pass rush and Marshon Lattimore-led coverage to keep Carolina from hitting on big plays in the passing game.
Because of the running game, Brees has enjoyed one of his best, most efficient and most consistent seasons of his career, right before he turns 39 on Jan. 15. Newton has been riding a roller-coaster in contrast and goes into the playoffs coming off his worst performance of the season.
It’s much easier to go with Brees and the Saints in the Superdome, where they lost only one game all season, to the AFC-best Patriots way back in Week 2.
Saints 34, Panthers 23
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David Steele: Focusing on how a team finished is so tempting, and if that’s the main factor for a playoff team, then the Panthers are doomed. They completely disappeared against the Falcons in the finale when the NFC South title (over these very same Saints) was at stake. The problem is, though … the Panthers have much more to worry about than that one season-ending game.
The Saints might have let one get away in their own season finale, but they swept the Panthers, including an early-December win in the Superdome that bore similarities to the Panthers’ loss to the Falcons. The Saints also avenged a loss to the Falcons two weeks before in Atlanta with one at home in Week 16, which put the Falcons on the bubble and solidified their own division title hopes.
Newton, after being so much of his old self most of the season, suddenly became the least reliable link in the Panthers’ chain. That puts the Panthers’ stellar defense in the hot seat, needing to slow Ingram, Kamara, Thomas and triggerman Brees to give them a chance. That’s a tall order … too tall.
Saints 27, Panthers 23