The New Orleans Saints, who are the NFC South Division Champions for the first time in 6 years, begin their quest for a Super Bowl title this Sunday evening inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when they host NFC South division rival Carolina in the opening round of the NFL Playoffs in one of two NFC Wild Card games.
Kickoff is set for 3:40 p.m. Central, and the game will be televised nationally on Fox.
The Saints, who finished with an (11-5) record overall, appear to be one of the most balanced teams in the Playoffs this year, an impressive accomplishment when considering how poorly they had looked at times in the three consecutive losing seasons (a 7-9 record in 2014, 2015, and 2016) prior to this season's successful 2017 campaign,
If you are fan of the NFL (and obviously you are if you're reading this), then you know that this season New Orleans is a viable threat — despite their #4 overall Playoff seeding in the NFC — to make a serious run all the way to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the site of Super Bowl LII next month on February 4th.
New Orleans swept the 2 meetings between themselves and the Panthers this season, and these two respective franchises know each other so well that there’s just not a whole lot that can happen which would surprise either team at this point.
The Saints just simply need to "stick to their formula" (which has been especially effective against Carolina) if they want to win a 3rd straight time against the Panthers, which consists of running the football, "locking down" on Carolina's wide receivers, and most importantly: protect the ball and keep turnovers / mistakes to a minimum.
With that in mind, here are the Saints News Network's 5 "bold predictions" for Sunday's NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the division rival Carolina Panthers........
#5. THE PANTHERS OFFENSE "SPUTTERS" FOR MOST OF THE 1st HALF SINCE THEY CAN BARELY HEAR THEMSELVES EVEN THINK, WHICH IS THANKS TO A ROLLICKING AND BOISTEROUS HOME CROWD AT THE SUPERDOME
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome has seen a "resurgence" this season as one of the toughest venues in all of Pro Football, as the Saints went (7-1) at home this past year with their only loss coming in the home opener to the defending Super Bowl champion and the current #1 AFC Playoff seed New England Patriots.
In the Saints' last home game 2 weeks ago against the Falcons, the decibel level reached a number of 105 at kickoff, which is the threshold of pain for the human ear. It's the sound equivalent of standing near a buzzsaw, and it means that Saints fans were as loud as humans are capable of being as one voice of 70,000 plus people indoors.
"It's been a long time since it has sounded like that," said Saints punter Thomas Morstead, a Saint since 2009 to reporters following that game. "It felt like old times. Hopefully we can keep handling business next week and get a home playoff game and get another shot to play here in the playoffs."
Morstead will get his wish in this contest, as the Saints home crowd makes so much noise that the Panthers are FORCED to go with a silent snap-count for a majority of their offensive possessions in the 1st Half.
As a result, the Panthers offense struggles and they are limited to 2 Graham Gano field goals on the scoreboard at halftime.
#4. DON'T LOOK NOW, BUT HERE COMES "RIVERBOAT RON" PULLING OUT ALL OF THE STOPS (INCLUDING THE KITCHEN SINK)
The "narrative" for this week's Wild Card match-up was already written once the match-up became official this past Sunday, which was: can the Saints beat the Panthers for a 3rd straight time?
According to ESPN Stats & Information, of the 20 times since 1970 in which a team went 2-0 against an opponent then met them a 3rd time, the (2-0) team won the third match-up 13 times, or 65% of the time.
“We can’t let them beat us three times,” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison told reporters in the locker room after their loss at Atlanta in the final regular season game.
“You’ve got to come out swinging. You’ve got to throw everything at them, including the kitchen sink.”
With this game and every other one afterwards a do-or-die situation for all 12 NFL Playoff teams, you can expect a lot of trick plays to be utilized by the respective head coaches in this weekend's games, and no head coach likes to take risks at this time of the NFL calendar year like the "riverboat gambler" himself, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
Rivera began being called “Riverboat Ron” back during the 2014 season after he showed a repeated willingness for high stakes gambles (including trick plays such as fake field goals), and the nickname has stuck ever since.
And true to his name: Rivera does have the Panthers fake a punt which goes for a successful 1st down conversion against an unsuspecting Saints special teams, and a 44-yard completion on a halfback-option pass from Carolina RB Christian McCaffrey to wide receiver Devin Funchess.
#3. THE SAINTS DEFENSE — DESPITE MISSING SEVERAL KEY STARTERS WITH INJURIES — PLAYS WELL ENOUGH TO LIMIT THE DAMAGE DONE BY "SUPERMAN" CAM NEWTON
In his previous two games against the Saints, Panthers QB Cam Newton has been adequate at times but has been limited in the damage that's he's been able to do, with 3 total touchdowns but also along with 3 interceptions.
Unfortunately for Newton, the folks over at Pro Football Focus noted the other day that the Saints defense is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete only 59.4% of their passes; and while Newton certainly can sling the ball whenever he wants, his accuracy leaves much to be desired.
That definitely doesn't bode very well for Newton, who's just coming off a game a few days ago where he threw 3 more interceptions and completed a mere 41.2% of his passes in their regular-season ending loss to the Falcons at Atlanta.
In this Sunday's game with both team's Super Bowl aspirations on the line, "Superman" Cam will have some mildly successful moments including a rushing TD in the 3rd quarter to keep the score close.
But he'll also be sacked 3 times, take some ferocious hits from Saints Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan, and throw another 2 interceptions including a critical one late in the game.
#2. THE SAINTS HAVE THEIR OWN SUPERHERO ON OFFENSE — AND FOR A 3rd CONSECUTIVE GAME, THE PANTHERS DEFENSE CAN'T STOP "CAPTAIN KAMARACA"
If Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and the Panthers’ linebacking corps couldn’t stop Saints rookie RB Alvin Kamara in the teams' first meeting of the season back in Week #3 at Charlotte, North Carolina or at the Superdome just a few weeks ago (Week #13), there's no reason to suspect that they'll fare much better this time around, either.
Kamara is just coming off another sensational performance in the regular season finale at Tampa last Sunday where he finished with 283 all-purpose yards and two TD's, including his first-ever kickoff return touchdown for a franchise-record 106 yards.
Kamara finished the season with a total of 1,554 yards from scrimmage, 1,901 all-purpose yards and 14 total touchdowns. He joined legendary 1960's Chicago Bears RB Gale Sayers (who was a rookie in 1965) as only the second rookie in NFL history with at least five rushing TD's, five receiving TD's and a kickoff return TD.
And the Saints' own offensive 'superhero' will have another crowd-pleasing performance in this game at the Superdome, as the dynamic rookie who has been nicknamed "Captain Kamaraca" by some Saints fans, gains 52 yards rushing on 7 carries and a TD, and catches 5 passes for an additional 76 yards including a 34-yard TD reception early on in the 2nd quarter.
#1. AFTER DOMINATING THE 1st HALF, THE SAINTS EVENTUALLY FIND THEMSELVES HANGING ON TO A VERY SLIM LEAD — WHEN SUDDENLY.......
When suddenly the better QB in this game takes over the contest, with pin-point precision and accuracy in the game's final 5 minutes that couldn't come at a better time.
After dominating the 1st half and shutting down Carolina's offense for a 21-6 lead going into halftime, the Panthers roar back with 2 TD's in the 3rd quarter and the two teams head into the 4th quarter with the Saints up by 1 point, by a score of 21-20.
The two teams then trade field goals back and forth to make the score 24-23, when the Saints get the ball back with 5:37 remaining on the clock inside of their own 10-yard line and the Panthers seemingly gaining momentum and giving Saints fans some of those same "uneasy" feelings that they've gotten in previous seasons when the Saints failed to "put away" an opponent.
But this time it's a whole different situation.
First, Drew Brees catches the Panthers secondary in a blown coverage, and hits former Panthers WR and current Saints #2 WR Ted Ginn, Jr. in stride for a 92-yard TD that sends Saints fans inside of the Superdome and at home watching on their living room TV's, into a state of euphoria.
Then, the Panthers get the ball back themselves and are threatening to score quickly after a long reception by Funchess deep down the Saints sidelines. But on the very next play as Newton tries to hit TE Greg Olsen with a pass inside the Saints red zone, he is INTERCEPTED by safety Marcus Williams.
With the ball back in Saints possession and up by 8 points with 3:13 remaining, Brees hits WR Micahel Thomas twice with key third down conversions, including a play where Brees perfectly "threads the needle" between two Panthers defenders.
The Saints tack on an extra field goal by Wil Lutz from 51 yards away, and with Carolina out of time outs and out of luck, they head back to Charlotte to prepare for the 2018 NFL Draft — while the Saints begin making travel reservations to Philadelphia, for a Divisional Playoff Round game against the Eagles.......