Week 15 of the NFL season draws to a conclusion tonight as the (6-7) Carolina Panthers fight for their playoff lives against the (11-2) New Orleans Saints (8:15 PM ET Monday on ESPN).
The latter team saw their chances of winning the top seed in the NFC increase following the loss of the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night.
What Happened to the Panthers?
Over the past few years, the Carolina Panthers have evolved into one of the best teams in the NFC, consistently putting in top performances and reaching the postseason. Last year, the Panthers went 11-5 before losing in the wildcard round of the playoffs to the very same Saints they will face on Monday. While the early playoff exit was disappointing, there was no reason for Panthers fans to believe their team wouldn’t be back in the postseason the following year. When the 2018 season began, that was exactly the mindset that existed throughout the Carolinas.
The Panthers opened the season with a win over the Dallas Cowboys before dropping their next game to the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers went on to win their next two and their next five of six. Once again, the team was performing at peak level and after week eight, they were just one game back of the Saints for the lead in the NFC South. Then an inexplicable collapse happened and it is hard to pinpoint exactly why and how things have gone so wrong.
Carolina lost each of their last five, including back-to-back games most recently against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. Cam Newton has continued to play well, throwing for under 250 yards and over one interception just once. Although Newton has thrown a total of eight picks during the losing streak compared to just nine touchdowns. Over the first eight weeks of the season, that ratio was 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions. As far as the running game, Christian McCaffrey’s stats haven’t exactly taken a nosedive. In fact, against the Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks, McCaffrey recorded his first back-to-back 100+ yard games this season.
Offensively, the Panthers haven’t seemed to regress enough to explain the five straight losses. In some ways, the issue lies on defense. In wins this year, the Panthers defense has held opponents to 21.6 points. In losses, that number is 29.4 and during the five game losing streak it’s close to an NFL worst of 30.4. The question still remains though as to why the sudden struggles on defense and how quickly, if at all, the team can figure things out this season.
Best Team in the NFC?
Ever since the Saints defeated the Rams to give LA its first loss of the season, the two NFC powerhouses have been in a heated race for the conference’s top seed in the playoffs. New Orleans once again seems to be in the driver’s seat following LA’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football. A win in their week 15 matchup would put the Saints in line for that seed with just two weeks in the season remaining.
New Orleans has been good this season because of all the normal reasons, offense and more offense. Drew Brees is having a career season, now in his 19th year in the league. His rating is 120.8, he has thrown 31 touchdowns and has thrown for 3,463 yards. Brees is first in rating and first in completion percentage. He is completing an insane 75.7 percent of his passes. Brees has been incredibly accurate and has really only had one bad game this season as far as the statline goes. Even so, in that loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Brees still only threw one pick. He also only had 127 yards, his second lowest output on the season. Offensively, Brees has great weapons. Much like Carolina has McCaffrey, New Orleans has Alvin Kamara. The young back has rushed for 100+ yards three times this season and 60+ yards in about half of the team’s games as well. Beyond Kamara there is Michael Thomas, who is having a top-10 year among all wide receivers. He is second in receptions with 102 and sixth in receiving yards per game, averaging 93.7.
Offense hasn’t been the only bread-and-butter for New Orleans. On defense, the Saints lead the NFL with the league’s top run defense in terms of yards allowed per game. This doesn’t bode well for McCaffrey as over their last four games, the Saints have held opponents to just over 72 rushing yards, including doing so to Ezekiel Elliott, one of the league’s top backs and a consistent threat to run for 100+ yards. New Orleans was the only the second team to hold Elliott to less than 100 yards in his prior six games. The Indianapolis Colts became the third team to do so in the last seven, holding Elliott to 87 yards on Sunday.
That means not just McCaffrey, but Newton, who is very much a mobile QB, could also find a hard time getting traction in the ground game.
Our Betting Preview’s New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers Picks & Predictions Verdict
For the Panthers, their season comes down to this. While they wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated from postseason contention with a loss, the road to the playoffs would become all but impossible and would require help from a handful of teams.
Carolina knows they will have to play much better than they have over the last five games but the real question comes down to, can they? Can the Panthers find their way back to where they were when their record was 6-2? They will have the advantage of being at home but when looking at New Orleans’ record on the road this year (6-1 SU and ATS), that’s not promising. It’s a hard number to ignore. So here are our New Orleans Saints vs Carolina Panthers predictions for this NFL preview:
- Look for New Orleans to continue their home-away-from-home success by picking up another win away from the Superdome. With regards the USA sports betting sites’ betting line on the spread, take the Saints to cover the 6 point spread @ -115 with either Intertops or BetOnline. It is -6.5pts for the same odds with Bovada.
- The total keeps dropping, now down 4.5 points from where it opened. Smart money has come in for the under but if this total keeps dropping, it is the over that makes most appeal. So the pick is to go over 50pts @ -110 with Intertops. It is -113 with BetOnline and -115 with Bovada.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.