Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:06 AM

WC - Panthers at Saints

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Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, 4:40 ET, FOX

Carolina has a lot of pride, so losing to the Saints three times would be a dreadful way to close out a tumultuous season. That’s the fate that awaits Cam Newton and his Panthers if they can’t come through on the road in New Orleans. The final NFL wild card playoff pits the top finishers in the NFC South, teams that have each played in Super Bowls within the last decade and return the same coaches and quarterbacks who reached that summit.

In a conference where the top two seeds feature quarterbacks that entered the season as backups, the winner of this one will find itself in a great position, likely going into Philadelphia as a road favorite next week.

New Orleans, at home after winning the NFC South by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker held by sweeping both regular-season meetings, is expected to hold serve and is currently running second-likeliest to win the NFC (11/4) according to the Westgate. The Vikings (8/5) are favored, while the Panthers are the longshot among those still alive in the conference, available at 15/1.

The old cliché that it’s difficult to beat the same team three times in one season has been mentioned often since it applies here, but the truth is that the team that swept the regular-season series wins the playoff matchup 65 percent of the time. That’s been the case in the 20 instances since 1970, so a 13-7 mark suggests it’s not exactly as tough as it’s made out to be.

Aiding the cause for New Orleans is the fact that the Saints have been an elite team at home, joining Philadelphia and Minnesota atop the NFL with a 7-1 record. The Panthers have played two of their worst games of the season against their division rival, falling by double-digits (15.5) and surrendering an average of 32.5 points and 381 yards per game.

Carolina gave up over 120 yards on the ground only twice on the season, surrendering 149 and 148 yards, in the losses to New Orleans. Kamara wasn’t a major factor in the Week 3 clash in Charlotte, but in the most recent meeting, he and Ingram combined for 248 yards and three scores. Both teams went into the Week 13 showdown at 8-3, so the reason they’re back at the Superdome is directly related to what the Saints were able to do in that 31-21 win.

Kamara, the likely NFL offensive Rookie of the Year, is the only first-year player other than Gale Sayers to have 5 rushing TDs, 5 receiving TDs and a kickoff return for a score in the same season.

He’s capable of being the x-factor here, especially since he finally looked like his normal, explosive self last Sunday, breaking off a 19-yard run and taking a pass 40 yards in topping the 100-yard mark in a game for the first time since leaving the Dec. 7 Monday night loss in Atlanta with a concussion. His legs look fresh, while Ingram averaged a season-worst 2.7 yards per carry but hasn’t gotten more than 20 touches in a game since Jan. 12, so he should also be sharp.

Linebackers Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson are all healthy and ready to go to try and counter New Orleans’ elite tandem of backs, which could open the door for Drew Brees to pick apart the Panthers secondary. Brees was dominant (74.6 pct, 489 yds, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) against Carolina this season but is just 11-13 against them since joining the Saints in 2006. New Orleans has scored 30 or more points in 12 of those 24 games, including four of the last five.

Brees excelled thanks to the newly found offensive balance and set a new NFL record by completing 72 percent of his passes, breaking his own mark. He’ll be looking to help New Orleans become the first team to win three games against a division rival since Dallas owned the Eagles in ’09.

Since Carolina dealt Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills, it is a bit light on elite playmakers, but did get tight end Greg Olsen back in the mix and saw versatile rookie RB Christian McCaffery and big target Devin Funchess find the end zone it the most recent loss in New Orleans. Pulling off an upset here hinges on those guys making life easier for Newton.

The Panthers star has had sloppy run against an improved Saints defense, throwing just two TDs against three picks. For his career, he’s 3-3 in the postseason, tossing 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Those aren’t Superman numbers, but we’ve seen him come up with big games in the playoffs before, both in college and the pros.

One thing Newton hasn’t done in the postseason is win a game outside of Charlotte, coming in 0-2 with a loss in Seattle and in Santa Clara in Super Bowl 50. Turnovers played a huge role in both setbacks.

Oddsmakers’ Take

New Orleans opened as a 5-to-5.5-point favorite but have gotten up into the 7-point range as kickoff approaches. Scott Cooley, spokesman for [...], explained why their number opened where it did.

“Given how this series played out during the regular season, the average bettor might expect a number closer to a touchdown. But we know that the Panthers are one of the most enigmatic teams in the league, and we know that the Saints may not be the team they are perceived to be.

The number is at 6.5 as of Friday at [...], and is likely rising.

“We’re hesitant to move to the key number, but that's where we're likely headed given the fact that the wiseguys are on the Saints along with the public,” said Cooley. “Of course, if we put up -7, we’re going to see some value action on Carolina, but we may need it because the public will bet the favorite Sunday.

"The spread money handle favors the home side 70-30 at this point. The total has been bet down with sharp money, but we’re not terribly concerned about that liability as there will be plenty of public action on the over.”

Injury report

The major concern for New Orleans revolved around No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas’ hamstring, which has healed sufficiently enough for him not to show up on the final injury report, so he’s full go. Thomas has caught 196 passes in his first two seasons, surpassing Miami’s Jarvis Landry for most in NFL history.

Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui has cleared concussion protocol, a boost since they lost Coby Fleener to a head injury early last month. Tackle Terron Armstead and DE Trey Hendrickson are questionable. The Saints lost safety Kenny Vaccaro and LB A.J. Klein in December.

Carolina has tackle Matt Kalil (illness) and guard Trai Turner (concussion) listed as questionable in addition to WR Funchess (shoulder) and backup QB Derek Anderson (illness), but all are expected to be available. The defense will have DT Vernon Butler (shoulder), DEs Mario Addison (hip) and Wes Horton (ribs), CB Ladarius Gunter (illness) and safety Kurt Coleman (ankle) available.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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