When the Panthers have the ball: Although they were held below 300 yards in four of their final six games — including in New Orleans, where the Saints completed their first series sweep since 2011 — Cam Newton and Co. can be as dynamic as they can be disappointing.
Newton rushed for a career-high 139-754, coinciding with a late-season ground surge behind a powerful interior O-line and improving, if still inefficient, showings from Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart. Without Kelvin Benjamin, Newton found a new No. 1 in Devin Funchess, who nearly bettered his previous two seasons’ production combined. Newton’s an inconsistent thrower — he had two touchdowns and zero picks in the last meeting, after zero scores and three interceptions in the first.
Newton must utilize TE Greg Olsen and McCaffrey to try and expose a Kenny Vaccaro- and A.J. Klein-less back seven and avoid Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Marshon Lattimore, who missed both regular-season meetings. The other difference makers for Dennis Allen’s ‘D’ are Cam Jordan (career-high 13 sacks, 11 PD), who spearheads the efforts up front, behind an aggressive man-coverage and blitz-heavy secondary with Lattimore and fellow young playmaking DB's, rookie Marcus Williams and sophomore Vonn Bell.
When the Saints have the ball: Their No. 5 rush attack, not Drew Brees’ right arm (career low 33.5 attempts per game as a Saint), has become New Orleans' new party animal.
Ron Rivera raved about rookie human highlight film, Alvin Kamara’s “elite ability” after his second devastation of the NFL’s No. 3 run ‘D,’ whose two worst outings came vs. Kamara and Mark Ingram (career-high 1,124 yards, 12 TD's). The NFL’s best backfield runs behind a terrific O-line anchored by C Max Unger and rookie RT Ryan Ramczyk and is deployed brilliantly by Sean Payton.
But Brees remains as precise as ever (NFL-record 72 percent completions), with a dominant No. 1 WR Michael Thomas and field-stretcher Ted Ginn leading his arsenal, and twice dissected Carolina (47-of-63, 4 TD's) this season.
Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis surprisingly struggled vs. the Saints’ run game in the regular season but are as good as any LB pairing, and ascending coordinator Steve Wilks has dialed up the aggressiveness on the No. 3 pass-rush ‘D,’ with a trio of playmakers, Julius Peppers, Mario Addison and Kawann Short. The questions reside in the secondary, where top CB James Bradberry is solid but Daryl Worley is inconsistent, and interceptions are elusive with the Panthers tied for 24th in the league with just 10.
Special teams: Carolina’s special-teams blunder — a fumble by P Michael Palardy —led to an easy Saints score in the previous meeting. But the Panthers, on the strength of PK Graham Gano’s career year, have an edge. The NFL’s most accurate kicker (96.7 percent) also has postseason experience, unlike strong-legged Wil Lutz. Kamara notched his first-ever kick return TD on Sunday, a 106-yard explosion, one week after a 49-yarder. McCaffrey hasn’t rediscovered his college return prowess, and Damiere Byrd was lost for the season shortly after his franchise record 103-yard kick return TD two weeks and one game after catching his first couple NFL scores.
Coaching: Payton has a ring; Rivera has one Super Bowl appearance, plus two Coach of the Year awards. Payton is more aggressive — think onside kickoff to open the second half of XLIV; Rivera is more measured in spite of his "Riverboat Ron" moniker. Payton is a masterful strategist who creates and exploits matchups and uses the entire field as well as any coach; Mike Shula’s offense can be unstoppable when it isn’t stopping itself. Carolina’s ‘D’ is increasingly creative under Wilks; Dennis Allen orchestrates maybe the NFL’s most improved defense.
Prediction: The Saints make it a season trifecta over Carolina. Their Super Bowl-winning QB is an ace in the hole to supplement the best matchup creators on the field in Kamara, Ingram and Thomas, each of whom Payton has maximized, unlike the Panthers with McCaffrey. Plus, Allen’s thieving ‘D’ is a pushover no more. It capitalizes on Newton’s erratic play, with a top cover man in Lattimore neutralizing Newton’s most consistent weapon, Funchess, and the improved speed and discipline to prevent Newton's legs from taking over