It's a pretty straightforward scenario for the New Orleans Saints this week: win and they'll not only clinch the NFC South, but also the conference's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
If they lose, the exact same circumstances will await the Carolina Panthers in Week 17.
After New Orleans' latest road stumble, the second showdown in three weeks between the Saints and Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte will guarantee a playoff spot for the winner while likely dealing the loser a precarious path in the postseason.
New Orleans (10-4) took control of the South with a 31-13 rout of Carolina (10-4) at the Superdome on Dec. 8, but its margin for error took a massive hit a week later in St. Louis.
A Saints win over the Rams would have allowed them to stay in the driver's seat even with a loss at Carolina due to a superior conference record. But after New Orleans committed three turnovers and fell behind by 24 points en route to a 27-16 loss - its fourth in five road games - this visit to Carolina may make or break its season.
"We know what we're playing for - we're playing for the divisional championship and the two seed so it doesn't get any bigger or better than that," quarterback Drew Brees said. "It is going to be a challenge for us. Obviously we understand our deficiencies on the road here the last couple of trips. It is great motivation for us to really hammer down this week, find ways to improve and get better."
While the Saints were coming up empty in St. Louis, Carolina bounced back at home with a 30-20 win over the New York Jets. Coach Ron Rivera, though, admits he got a bit caught up in checking the out-of-town scoreboard.
"A few too many times, to be honest with you," Rivera said. "I did get distracted a couple of times. ... I did hear the crowd cheer and when I looked up they showed the (Saints') score, so that caught my attention."
Carolina will win the South and the conference's second seed with a victory Sunday and a win at Atlanta or a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17. Should the Saints win, they'll be able to rest some starters in their finale with the No. 2 seed locked up.
A loss could be especially damaging for the Panthers. Carolina could still clinch a playoff berth with losses by Arizona and San Francisco, but it also could find itself in trouble should it head to Week 17 tied with the 9-5 Cardinals due to its head-to-head loss.
Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers two weeks ago, bringing his totals at home to an NFC-best 23 TDs, an NFL-best 73.2 completion percentage and a 122.5 passer rating.
On the road, Brees completes just 63.4 percent for an average of 6.94 yards per attempt, nearly two fewer than at home, with an 86.3 QB rating and seven of his 10 interceptions.
Perhaps it's not surprising then that the Saints average 32.9 points at the Superdome and 18.4 on the road - 27th in the league.
"This is not a 'show up on Sunday and play' sport," tackle Zach Strief said. "So, when you go on the field and put that on tape and play like we have on the road it's absolutely concerning."
Strief will have a new partner at tackle in Carolina. Left tackle Charles Brown was benched in St. Louis after committing a key penalty and playing a part in Brees being sacked four times, so the Saints will give rookie Terron Armstead the job of protecting Brees' blindside against a Panthers defense that leads the NFC with 45 sacks.
That's not the only change after the debacle against the Rams. New Orleans released kicker Garrett Hartley after two misses in St. Louis and signed veteran Shayne Graham.
"These aren't decisions you make for effect," coach Sean Payton said. "You don't do that. At least we don't."
Carolina's only loss in its last 10 games came at the Superdome, and it has been especially dominant at home. The Panthers have won six straight there by an average of 18.7 points.
Cam Newton was sacked five times at New Orleans and an NFL-high 28 on the road, but he's been sacked just 10 times in seven home games.
Like Brees, big plays have been a much more common occurrence for Newton at home. He's averaged 8.36 yards per attempt in Charlotte with 12 plays of 25-plus yards. He has only one in his past three road games while throwing for 4.84 yards per pass.
Newton has averaged 9.35 yards per attempt, hit five plays of 25 or more and accounted for five total touchdowns while going 1-1 at home against New Orleans.
He ran for 71 against the Saints last season at home, and it won't be a surprise to see Carolina attack New Orleans on the ground. The Panthers have averaged 178.5 yards rushing - 5.7 per carry - in their past 10 games against the Saints, but only ran 13 times after the first quarter in the first meeting.
"It was a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go," Newton said after the Dec. 8 loss. "The best thing about this is we have an opportunity to face this team again in two weeks (at Carolina). Those guys just were better than us today.
"Are they better than us? No."
The Associated Press News Service
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