Being undefeated is quite nice for the Carolina Panthers. Staying that way after week 13 would be more than that, especially if it means ending the playoff hopes of division rivals the New Orleans Saints.
The Panthers, 11-0, keep talking about the need to focus on the next game, not finishing the season with a perfect record. It makes it easier when there’s rivalry and hatred involved, as the Panthers have the opportunity to hand the Saints a fourth straight loss, drop them to 4-8 and make it pretty much official that they won’t be making the playoffs for a second straight season and third time in four years. More So, it could be an even stronger sign that the era of Sean Payton and Drew Brees having their way in the division is officially over.
And the Saints did look like a team that’s pretty much done with this season in their 24-6 loss to the Houston Texans in the previous week. The defense might now be better without Rob Ryan, but this is a soft team that doesn’t just seem to regress in most phases with every passing week; the spirit and desire of winning games seems to be running out of them, and they can’t wait for this season to be over. Which is the wrong way to be hitting a game against the hottest, and maybe best team in the league.
The Panthers are no longer struggling early in games and need some late rescues from Cam Newton to fix his own mistakes. Their defense is unrelenting and punishing from the first moment, which makes the job very easy for the offense, that keeps thing simple. Newton, Jonathan Stewart, Greg Owens and just a little bit of help from unknown receivers. It’s not the flashiest way of doing business in the NFL, but it’s working better than anything else out there.
A lot of these divisional rivalries tend to surprise you when there’s a clear favorite like the Panthers are heading into this game in New Orleans. But the feeling is different about this one. It feels like the Panthers are going to show that the division is now theirs, winning it once again, en route to making the playoffs for a third straight year and maybe as favorites to win the Super Bowl. It feels completely different for the Saints. It reeks of an end that can’t be avoided, and might be arriving with the Panthers to signal it’s time for a major change.