For the New Orleans Saints this coming Sunday, their long-anticipated "rematch" with NFC South Division rival Carolina is as big and monumentally important of a game as they come, in today's NFL.
Some are even referring to this as the "Game of the Year" for both teams.
Though the teams currently have identical (8-3) records, the Saints technically are still in 1st Place; by virtue of their dominant 34-13 win over the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium at Charlotte, North Carolina back in Week #3.
It was a win that began an 8-game winning streak for New Orleans; until it was snapped just this past weekend in their 26-20 loss at Los Angeles to their conference foe, the L.A. Rams.
A win for New Orleans this Sunday would essentially give them a 2-game lead over the Panthers, since they would have a "season sweep" over Carolina for the first time since the 2011 season — the last year that the Saints won the division title.
On the flip side, if the Panthers lose Sunday they'll have very little chance to win the NFC South.
Carolina would trail the Saints by a game with 4 games left to play, but also would lose any tiebreaker to the Saints; meaning they would have to pick up two games in the final four weeks.
And with the Saints facing the Jets and Buccaneers in 2 of their final 4 games, that’s as likely to happen as you or I winning the Multi-State Powerball jackpot — twice in a row on back-to-back weekends.
Oh, and by the way: the Panthers will still have Atlanta (7-4) to contend with, as they try to avoid dropping down to 3rd place in the division. The Panthers and Falcons meet for their rematch in Atlanta on New Year's Eve (December 31st).
A Carolina victory on the other hand, would give the Panthers a one-game lead in the division and earn a split of the series. They can also finish as high as the #2 seed for the Playoffs, since they still play Minnesota — the current #2 seed at (9-2) — in 2 weeks from now in Charlotte.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, it would be almost impossible for them to catch Philadelphia for the #1 seed, by virtue of the Eagles’ earlier win over Carolina back in Week #6.
While the Saints enter the game following that tough loss to the Rams, the Panthers have gotten "hot" at just the right time; and have won 4 straight games to finally catch up with the Saints and tie for the division lead.
Nevertheless, that streak hasn't come without some trepidation. Carolina was EXTREMELY fortunate (perhaps 'lucky' is a better word) to escape New York with a 35-27 victory over the Jets this past Sunday.
That came despite the Panthers allowing 307 passing yards and three touchdown passes to long-time journeyman QB and 38-year-old veteran "gunslinger" Josh McCown.
But the biggest difference between the Panthers now from when the Saints played them back in Week #3, is the emergence of QB Cam Newton once again as a "running" QB.
As noted by Charlotte Observer writer Scott Fowler, the Panthers have all but abandoned the idea that Newton was mostly a pocket quarterback. He led Carolina in rushing for four straight games at one point this season and still leads the team in rushing touchdowns, with five.
Fowler says that Newton routinely carries the ball 8-11 times a game now, and took a huge hit against the Jets this past Sunday when he somersaulted into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
Fowler adds that Carolina will have no chance to beat the Saints this coming Sunday if Newton throws the ball as poorly as he did against the Jets (11-for-28 for 168 yards) in a game where it seemed that Newton’s injured right thumb was affecting his accuracy.
With Newton's thumb still a concern for Carolina, it highlights the one main thing that will certainly have a direct impact for both teams in this rematch: injuries.
The Saints of course were without both starting cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (ankle) and Ken Crawley (abdomen) in their loss to the Rams, and their status for this week's game won't be known until later in the week.
One suspects that head coach Sean Payton will try to get both players back on the field, if they've healed sufficiently enough to warrant them being inserted back into the starting line-up.
The Saints clearly missed both players against the Rams, and one would suspect that Carolina would seek to exploit their absence as well if neither is available again for this contest.
Meanwhile, the Panthers just yesterday got word that starting tight end Greg Olsen's tests on his surgically repaired right foot came back negative, as reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.
As Saints fans well know: Olsen has had some HUGE games against New Orleans in the past, and his role as Newton's top / favorite target on their passing offense is critical to their overall success
Olsen had his foot examined by noted specialist Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, North Carolina. Anderson performed the surgery in September to repair Olsen's broken foot, an injury that sent the Pro Bowl tight end to injured reserve and forced him to miss the first game against the Saints in Charlotte.
Olsen returned to the field after missing eight games in Sunday's 35-27 victory over the Jets but was unable to finish the game. Initial X-rays on the foot were negative, sources told Schefter, which confirmed an earliee report by ProFootballTalk.com.
Olsen had 1 catch for 10 yards on 4 targets against the Jets before the injury.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told reporters after the game that Olsen wanted to return for the second half but that his foot was sore. Rivera also said he doesn't believe it is a serious aggravation.
Olsen's status is now listed as "day-to-day", but it's expected he WILL play against the Saints.
Injuries aside, there's no overstating or over-hyping the importance of this game for either team.
As far as playing in front of an anticipated wild scene that will feature over 70,000 plus screaming Saints fans yelling at them from all directions, the Panthers say that they know what to expect this coming Sunday.
“It’s a difficult place to play,” linebacker Luke Kuechly told reporters yesterday in the team's locker room, “but that’s what makes it fun. ... Drew is a monster. Kamara is a stud. (Wide receiver Michael) Thomas is a stud. … We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
A few lockers over, 37-year old Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who leads Carolina in sacks with 8.5; told reporters yesterday that they're prepared to do battle for NFC South supremacy in the "Superdome Showdown" or the "Game of the Year", or whatever tag-line that's applicable to this Sunday's crucial contest between division rivals.
“We’ll be ready,” Peppers said smiling.
When asked to elaborate further on his feelings about facing the Saints and the Panthers' chances of getting out of New Orleans with a win, Peppers said he wasn’t about to offer any predictions.
“I’m just saying,” Peppers repeated, “we’ll be ready.”
Saints fans can only hope that after having their 8-game winning streak snapped with now suddenly having to bounce right back and needing to win such a critically important game — that this young Saints team will be ready, too......