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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (10-4) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (10-4)
 
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: Carolina -3.5 & 47.5
Opening Line & Total: Panthers -3 & 46.5

 
NFC South co-leaders will play a huge game on Sunday when the Saints visit the Panthers.
 
New Orleans fell 27-16 in St. Louis last week, dropping the club to 0-5 ATS (1-4 SU) in its past five road games. Carolina took out the Jets 30-20 last week to mark its sixth straight home win (5-0-1 ATS). But when these clubs met two weeks ago at the Superdome, the Saints rolled to a 31-13 rout as QB Drew Brees threw 4 TD passes, improving his record in this series to 6-2 since 2009. But Panthers QB Cam Newton piled up 304 total yards and 2 TD in leading his team to a 35-27 victory in last year’s home meeting, making this series an even 9-9 (SU and ATS) all-time in Carolina.

Last week's humiliating loss is a good sign for New Orleans on Sunday, as the team is 16-4 ATS (80%) off a road defeat, and 23-13 ATS (64%) after an SU loss under Sean Payton. But the Panthers are a hard team to sweep, going 30-11 ATS (73%) in franchise history when revenging a loss where their opponent scored 28+ points. They are also 6-0 ATS at home versus poor rushing defenses (4.5+ YPC allowed) under Ron Rivera.

Both teams are relatively healthy, with the biggest injury questions being New Orleans S Roman Harper (hip) and Carolina LB Jordan Senn (hamstring).
 
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New Orleans leads the NFL in yardage margin, outgaining opponents by 84 YPG. The offense has piled up 397 total YPG (5th in league) thank mostly to an air attack that gains 308 YPG (2nd in NFL). The team has also been able to sustain drives with an excellent third-down conversion rate of 45% (4th in league), but its mediocre red-zone efficiency (54% TD rate, 18th in NFL) has led to just 25.6 PPG (10th in league). QB Drew Brees (4,500 pass yards, 7.8 YPA, 34 TD, 10 INT) is having another huge season, but his road numbers have been pretty ordinary (63% completions, 6.9 YPA, 11 TD, 7 INT). However, Brees has thrown for more than 300 yards in five straight meetings with Carolina, totaling 1,782 passing yards (356 YPG), 8.3 YPA, 16 TD and just 5 INT.

Brees has always done a great job of spreading around his targets, and this year there are six Saints players with at least 44 targets. TE Jimmy Graham (1,071 rec. yards, 14 TD) and WR Marques Colston (813 rec. yards, 5 TD) are the two receivers whom Brees prefers most though, and each of them scored two touchdowns in the big win over the Panthers two weeks ago. Brees' passing exploits have helped mask a dismal New Orleans running game that has averaged only 89 YPG (26th in NFL) on 3.8 YPC (27th in league). In the past three weeks, the numbers have been even worse with 58 YPG on 3.2 YPC.

The Saints defense has improved leaps and bounds from last year when it allowed 28.4 PPG and 440 YPG, as those numbers have dipped to 19.3 PPG and 313 YPG this year, both of which rank fifth-best in the NFL. Having the third-lowest time of possession (27:52) has certainly helped, as has a solid 37% third-down conversion defense (12th in NFL). But one glaring weakness has been turnovers, with the Saints tallying just two takeaways over their past seven games combined.
 
Carolina's offense has not been a juggernaut by any stretch, ranking 25th in total yards (326 YPG) and 17th in scoring (23.4 PPG). However, the ability for its strong ground game (129 YPG, 8th in NFL) to pick up third downs consistently (46%, 3rd in league) has led to the team ranking second in the NFL in time of possession (33:06).

QB Cam Newton is having his best pro season in terms of passing, completing 62% of his throws for 3,049 yards (7.2 YPA), 21 TD and just 11 INT. He has also run for 507 yards and six touchdowns. In his five career games in this series, Newton has pedestrian passing numbers (58% completions, 7.3 YPA, 5 TD, 3 INT) but has run for 212 yards on 5.4 YPC with two touchdowns. Newton relies mostly on two players when he drops back to pass, TE Greg Olsen (739 rec. yards, 5 TD) and WR Steve Smith (701 rec. yards, 4 TD). Although the duo combined for 14 receptions in the loss to New Orleans, those catches resulted in just 89 yards (6.4 yards per catch) with Smith's touchdown coming late in the fourth quarter with his team trailing 31-6.

With RB Jonathan Stewart (3.8 YPC) out indefinitely with a knee injury, Newton and RBs DeAngelo Williams (743 rush yards, 4.2 YPC, 2 TD) and Mike Tolbert (331 rush yards, 3.6 YPC, 5 TD) will once again propel the ground game.

Carolina's defense has been consistently excellent all season, ranking second in the NFL in both scoring defense (14.9 PPG) and total defense (296 YPG). The unit has the lowest time of possession in the NFL thanks to a league-best 22% fourth-down conversion rate and a solid third-down defense (36%, 10th in NFL). The scoring has been kept to a minimum because of a stellar red-zone defense (42%, 3rd in league). Although Carolina has forced 12 turnovers in its past seven games, this series has not had a lot of miscues with the teams combining for just 10 turnovers in the past five matchups combined.
 
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-4) at BALTIMORE RAVENS (8-6)
 
Sportsbook.ag Line & Total: Baltimore -2 & 45
Opening Line & Total: Ravens -2 & 45

  
The Patriots and Ravens meet Sunday for the seventh time in five years, once again with major playoff implications on the line.
 
New England was unable to wrap up the AFC East last week in its 24-20 loss in Miami, but Baltimore scored a huge win Monday in Detroit with Justin Tucker connecting on six field goals including a 61-yarder in the final minute of an 18-16 victory. These clubs have split the six meetings since 2009, but the Ravens won both games last year, 31-30 on a Tucker 27-yard FG as time expired, and a dominating 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship in New England when QB Joe Flacco threw for 240 yards and 3 TD.

The Patriots are just 1-6 ATS (3-4 SU) on the road this season, while the Ravens are 6-1 SU (4-2-1 ATS) at home. However, New England has thrived in the underdog role under Bill Belichick, going 41-21 ATS (66%), and is also 28-12 ATS (70%) in the final two weeks of the regular season since 1992. But Baltimore is a stellar 15-5 ATS (75%) versus winning teams since 2011, and 16-7 ATS (70%) as a home favorite of seven points or less under John Harbaugh.

Both teams have plenty of injury concerns in this game, including both Flacco (knee) and New England QB Tom Brady (shoulder), who will both start. In addition to a slew of probable players on both teams, both Patriots starting offensive tackles, Nate Solder (head) and Marcus Cannon (ankle) are listed as questionable for this game. The Ravens could be missing two defenders in LB Albert McClellan (neck) and S Brynden Trawick (ankle), who are both considered questionable for Sunday.
 
New England's offense has been inconsistent this season with four games of 20 points or less and six games of 30+ points. For the season, the team ranks sixth in the NFL in scoring (26.4 PPG) and eighth in total offense (391 total YPG). While the Patriots rank sixth in the league in passing (272 YPG), they are average in most other categories, such as rushing offense (4.2 YPC, 16th in NFL), red-zone efficiency (55% TD rate, 16th in league) and third-down conversions (39%, 15th in NFL).

QB Tom Brady (4,049 pass yards, 7.0 YPA, 23 TD, 10 INT) has played very well over the past six weeks with 2,225 pass yards (371 YPG), 8.2 YPA, 14 TD and 4 INT. However, he has played terribly in the past five meetings with the Ravens (four of which were at home), throwing for only 6.2 YPA, 5 TD and 9 INT. Although he will likely get WR Aaron Dobson (foot) back on the field this week, Brady will still be missing TE Rob Gronkowski (knee, IR), while WRs Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) and Josh Boyce (foot) are both questionable. Brady still has plenty of options to choose from though, including WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who each eclipsed 130 receiving yards last week with double-digit catches.

The New England running game has featured nine different ball carriers this year, and currently ranks 12th in the NFL with 118.3 YPG. RB Stevan Ridley leads the way with 645 yards on 4.3 YPC and 7 TD, but he has been plagued by fumble problems all year, and also lost a fumble in the AFC Championship loss to the Ravens last year.

On defense, the Patriots have given up a ton of yardage (372.7 YPG, 24th in NFL), especially on the ground (132.5 rushing YPG, 2nd-worst in league). But although they are horrible on third downs (43%, 4th-worst in NFL) and subpar in the red zone (58%, 21st in league), the team has allowed just 22.2 PPG (T-10th in NFL). The defense needs to be more opportunistic though, having caused just two turnovers in three December games.
 
The Ravens' offense has been bad in all facets this year, ranking last in the NFL with 3.0 yards per carry and second-worst with 4.6 yards per play, leading to a mere 309.9 YPG (4th-worst in NFL). They are scoring only 21.1 PPG (25th in league) due largely to an anemic red-zone offense (49% TD rate, 4th-worst in NFL). QB Joe Flacco has a career-low passer rating of 76.5, completing only 58.9% of his passes for 6.6 YPA, 18 TD and 17 INT. He has been much more efficient at home though, completing 62% of his passes for 6.9 YPA, 10 TD and 6 INT. Flacco has also enjoyed plenty of success in six games against the Patriots in his career, throwing for 1,511 yards (252 YPG), 12 TD and 4 INT. In last year's two victories in this series, he threw for 622 yards (8.3 YPA), 6 TD and just one interception.

RB Ray Rice has also dominated the Patriots in his career with 735 total yards (122.5 YPG) and 4 TD in six meetings, but he is in the midst of his worst NFL season. Injuries are a big reason why Rice has a career-low 3.1 YPC and has topped 75 rushing yards just once all season.

Baltimore's defense has carried the team in 2013, ranking seventh in the league in points allowed (19.8 PPG) and ninth in total defense (334.0 YPG). This has occurred because of an excellent third-down defense (32%, 3rd in NFL) and red-zone efficiency (43% TD rate, 4th in league). The Ravens have really stuffed the run too, allowing a mere 102.4 YPG (7th in NFL) and 3.8 YPC (5th in league). They have also made some big plays, forcing three turnovers in three of the past six contests.

  
HEADLINES
Mejia: NFC Preseason Wrap
Mejia: AFC Preseason Wrap
Lawrence: Trends to Watch - September
Lawrence: 2014 NFC Season Preview
Marshall: Ravens rising up
Lawrence: 2014 AFC Season Preview
ASA: NFC North Notebook
ASA: NFC South Notebook
Marshall: Philadelphia Hype
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