The Carolina Panthers leap into the New Year, but wrap up the 2020 season on Sunday, taking on the NFC South Champion New Orleans Saints at Bank of America stadium. A nationally televised showdown with Kick-off set for 4:25 p.m. (TV: FOX/ Radio: WBT).
The Saints (11-4) boast their usual high-powered offense, and this time they’ve got a top five defense to go along with it. And even though they’ve already clinched the division and a playoff berth, don’t expect the Saints to sit their starters. They’re still in the running for the top overall seed in the NFC and the first round bye that comes with it.
“The bye this year is so important because only one team gets it,” said Panthers coach Matt Rhule. “So they’re gonna play.”
With several of Drew Brees’ top receivers sidelined with injuries, running back Alvin Kamara has been the star of the offense. The All-Pro running back leads the team with 83 catches, five of them for touchdowns, and he’s rushed for 952 yards and 16 more scores. Six of those came last week against the Vikings, which tied an NFL record.
“He’s a special player, he’s a different type of player,” said Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown. “He runs the ball hard, he’s quick, he can also catch the ball, come out of the backfield and be that other wide receiver on the field.”
The Panthers (5-10) will no doubt have their hands full with Kamara and the Saints offense, which has averaged over 200 yards rushing in three of the past five games. But the Saints have plenty of respect for the Panther defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL with 22 takeaways.
“They play really fast and take the ball away,” said Saints Pro Bowl tackle Terron Armstead. “That’s the sign of a good defense. Those guys play extremely hard and extremely fast, and we’ve got to do a good job of protecting the ball.”
The Saints defense is playing even better than the offense right now, ranking in the top five against the run and the pass, and are 8th in points allowed, giving up just 22 per game.
They’ve got a dominant front line led by six-time Pro Bowler Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson, who leads the team with 12 and a half sacks. Star linebacker Kwon Alexander tore his Achilles in the Vikings game, but Demario Davis has been outstanding this season, racking up 114 tackles and four sacks.
The Saints secondary could be missing two of its top three safeties. C.J. Gardner-Johnson landed on the COVID-19 list this week and Marcus Williams is dealing with an ankle injury. But they’ve still got Pro Bowler Malcolm Jenkins, plus a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, who leads the team with three interceptions.
The Panthers and Saints might be headed in different directions as the season winds down, but this is an important game for both teams. The Panthers are looking to finish the year strong and set the tone for the 2021 season. They could also avenge their week seven loss to their division rival, and play spoiler in the Saints’ playoff seeding. But when it comes down to it, the Panthers want just one thing.
“Honestly, we just want to win,” said quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. “That’s the ultimate goal each week – to win. We just want to go out there and play winning football.”