When the Carolina Panthers met the New Orleans Saints a couple weeks ago, nothing went right for the Panthers.
The Saints dismantled them in a 31-13 win. Carolina's chances of winning the NFC South seemed to slip away that night. Then the Rams blew out the Saints last week, and the Panthers were right back in the hunt.
They'll need to beat the Saints to keep their hopes of winning the division alive. A Saints win clinches the title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
So what can the Panthers do to flip that result from the first meeting? Well, the first step is waking up in Charlotte instead of New Orleans on Sunday.
The Saints' home-road splits are amazing. They are 7-0 at home, just about unbeatable with their crowd bothering the opposing offense and letting Drew Brees change plays at the line of scrimmage. On the road, New Orleans is 3-4 with losses to losing teams like the Jets and Rams.
Carolina is 6-1 at home, the only loss coming in Week 1 against the Seahawks, unquestionably the best team in the NFL this season. The Panthers lost that game 12-7 after DeAngelo Williams fumbled inside the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Carolina won't win by simply showing up on their home turf. They did not match up well against the Saints' passing game in the first meeting, allowing Drew Brees to throw for 313 yards and four touchdowns. Carolina's secondary is the weakest part of its defense, and Marques Colston was able to beat it for nine catches and 125 yards. If the Saints can pass the ball like that again, it won't matter where the game is held.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton needs to be better, too. The Panthers didn't have a pass play of longer than 17 yards at New Orleans. Newton had just 160 yards on 34 attempts. That won't beat the Saints.
The Panthers take control of the South with a win. If they win Sunday, a Panthers win at Atlanta in Week 17 or a Saints loss against Tampa Bay wraps up the division crown and a first-round bye. To put themselves in that position, they'll have to play the Saints much tougher than they did two weeks ago. Not having to play in the Superdome gives them a chance to do that.
Here are the other NFL games this week, from best to worst (all times Eastern, all games Sunday unless noted otherwise):
2. New England at Baltimore, 4:25 p.m.: There is a lot on the line here. The Patriots are in danger of falling to the No. 3 seed with a loss. The Ravens likely need a win to stay alive for the AFC North title, and perhaps for their playoff lives considering how well the Dolphins are playing.
3. Arizona at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.: This will be a tough game. For the Cardinals, it's a playoff game. They'll throw everything they have at Seattle, who still has a two-game lead over everyone in the NFC.
4. Indianapolis at Kansas City, 1 p.m.: This is a likely playoff preview, though a rematch would take place in Indianapolis. The Chiefs' offense has come alive the past few weeks. The Colts need to maintain some momentum from last week's win over Houston.
5. Chicago at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.: This is an interesting game, but a great subplot comes about if the Cowboys win in an early game. That would mean the Eagles have nothing to play for and probably should rest starters for a Week 17 game at Dallas that would decide the NFC East title. The Lions, who need Chicago to lose one of their final two, would be thrilled if the Bears faced Philly's backups.
6. Pittsburgh at Green Bay, 4:25 p.m.: Like last week, this game goes way up the list if Aaron Rodgers returns. As it is, the story of the Packers trying to stay alive while Rodgers is out with a broken collarbone has been pretty interesting.
7. Miami at Buffalo, 1 p.m.: The Dolphins have been in a lot of stressful games lately. And this isn't the easiest road trip to make. And Bills quarterback Thad Lewis getting the start for Buffalo isn't necessarily a good thing for the Dolphins, who lost 23-21 to the Bills when Lewis started earlier this year.
8. Minnesota at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.: The Bengals can clinch the division title with a win and a Ravens loss. They desperately need to bounce back from last week's loss to Pittsburgh.
9. Atlanta at San Francisco, 8:40 p.m. (Monday): The game itself isn't that interesting, because the Falcons are not good. But it's the last game at Candlestick Park, one of the truly historic venues in the NFL.
10. N.Y. Giants at Detroit, 4:05 p.m.: It seems unlikely that the Lions will lose to a truly terrible Giants team at home. But you wouldn't be surprised if it happened.
11. Dallas at Washington, 1 p.m.: Kirk Cousins and the Redskins might see the quarterback's trade value explode after an afternoon against that awful Cowboys secondary.
12. Denver at Houston, 1 p.m.: The Texans did give the Patriots a good game a few weeks ago. So anything is possible.
13. Cleveland at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.: Worth turning on just to see if the Josh Gordon train can keep rolling.
14. Oakland at San Diego, 4:25 p.m.: The Chargers aren't mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, and they're looking to avenge a loss at Oakland earlier this season.
15. Tampa Bay at St. Louis, 1 p.m.: Come on, at this point the Rams have to notice that the team has been a lot more competitive with Kellen Clemens than it was for the last few years with Sam Bradford.
16. Tennessee at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.: A Jaguars win here, and Jacksonville is in danger of falling out of the draft's top 10 picks. Who would have thought that at midseason?
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This is how fast the NFL can change: When Joseph Fauria scored for the Lions with 2:21 left on Monday night, the Lions were winning 16-15 and in first place in the NFC North.
By the time that 2:21 was over, the Lions were in third place in the NFC North and in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs next week.
If Green Bay and Chicago both win next week, the Lions are eliminated. Chicago and Green Bay are both ahead of Detroit, and one of them has to win a Week 17 showdown. Detroit can't get a wild-card spot either. That's how quickly Ravens kicker Justin Tucker's 61-yard kick changed the Lions' outlook.
That was just one of many really bad losses in the NFL in Week 15. The Saints lost control of the NFC South by dropping a game at St. Louis. Denver blew a chance to keep the lead in the race for the No. 1 seed, then New England blew a chance to take over the No. 1 seed from Denver, then Cincinnati blew a chance to take over the No. 2 seed from New England. And we don't even need to mention what happened to Dallas.
Parity is a cliche, but nobody said it's not accurate. The top three seeds in the AFC, all with a lot to play for, lost. That's the first time all three top seeds in a conference lost on the same week since Week 17 of 1991, according to Rich Eisen.
Nobody seems safe. It makes you respect what the Seahawks are doing this year, rolling along with a two-game cushion in the division and NFC. Every other team seems vulnerable from week to week. Should make for a fascinating rest of the season.
Here are this week's power rankings:
32. Houston Texans (2-12, LW: 32)
They're leaving absolutely no doubt about who is drafting first next year.
31. Washington Redskins (3-11, LW: 31)
Kirk Cousins does some things well, but face it, his value to Washington is trading him for a much-needed pick.
30. Atlanta Falcons (4-10, LW: 30)
Remember Washington's failed two-point conversion when someone else is drafting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the second pick in May.
29. Oakland Raiders (4-10, LW: 28)
The early-season good vibes are fading quickly. Dennis Allen's job security is, too.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10, Last week: 27)
Jordan Todman, who is 23 years old, looked good rushing for 109 yards on Sunday. And again, I have no idea why this rebuilding team didn't trade Maurice Jones-Drew at the deadline.
27. New York Giants (5-9, LW: 26)
Since 1988, no quarterback has thrown 30 interceptions in a year. Eli Manning has 25 picks this season. Remember this season when people mistakenly argue he should be in the Hall of Fame.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10, LW: 24)
Don't play the "Tampa won! Schiano saves his job!" or "Tampa lost! Fire Schiano!" game every week. Either he's the best option for the job or he's not; it shouldn't change based on each game's result.
24. Cleveland Browns (4-10, LW: 23)
Safety T.J. Ward is having a Pro Bowl season. He's also 27 and a free agent this offseason. Has to be a huge priority to re-sign him.
23. Buffalo Bills (5-9, LW: 25)
Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel has been pretty quiet since he came back from injury, and he tweaked his knee again on Sunday. He'll be very interesting to watch in Year 2. There's something to build on, but he needs to make normal second-year progress.
22. Tennessee Titans (5-9, LW: 19)
From Week 3 to 14, Kenny Britt had three catches for 21 yards. Total. He had three for 29 on Sunday. Was surprising to see him, because I'm not quite sure why he's still on the Titans roster.
21. St. Louis Rams (6-8, LW: 22)
Blow out the Bears. Get dominated by San Francisco. Never show up at Arizona. Absolutely destroy the Saints. You figure the Rams out. I give up.
20. New York Jets (6-8, LW: 18)
Rex Ryan said he's the the best man for the job for the 2014 Jets. I agree.
19. Dallas Cowboys (7-7, LW: 17)
They're such a flawed team. That's why they're so interesting. Week 17 against the Eagles with a division title on the line would be a treat.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8, LW: 20)
Really interesting team for the 2014 offseason. There are some pieces in place. Games like Sunday night make you feel like there's something to build on. But it's easy to see they need to overhaul a few spots. Will they go for some quick fixes?
17. Green Bay Packers (7-6-1, LW: 21)
Every playoff team in the NFC groaned a bit when the Cowboys let the Packers stay alive. If we could project them having a healthy Aaron Rodgers, playing like he normally does, I'd put them sixth on this list.
16. Detroit Lions (7-7, LW: 11)
If Jim Schwartz wants to keep his job, he better hope that either Green Bay or Chicago loses in Week 16 to keep Detroit alive, because he isn't surviving blowing the division title this year.
15. San Diego Chargers (7-7, LW: 16)
The Dolphins' win, and Miami's upcoming schedule, makes it hard to believe the Chargers can make the playoffs. That might be good news for whoever gets the No. 3 seed.
14. Indianapolis Colts (9-5, LW: 15)
Playing the Chiefs tough at Arrowhead this week would go a long way toward rebuilding confidence for the playoffs. Because they're probably going to see Kansas City again in Round 1, and beating up a flailing Texans team doesn't solve their many issues.
13. Miami Dolphins (8-6, LW: 14)
The Dolphins finish at Buffalo and at home against the Jets. The way they're playing, you have to figure they win out. What a story it would be if they made the playoffs.
12. Chicago Bears (8-6, LW: 12)
If the Cowboys win early next Sunday, the Eagles are playing for the NFC East title in Week 17 against Dallas no matter what happens in their game against Chicago on Sunday night. So would Philadelphia rest its starters? Why wouldn't they? It could really impact the NFC North race. (Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Tuesday he won't rest starters. I don't buy it.)
11. Arizona Cardinals (9-5, LW: 10)
Sunday at Seattle is basically a playoff game. If they lose, it's hard to imagine they get enough help to make the playoffs. And the Seahawks still have a two-game lead in division and conference. Could be interesting.
10. Baltimore Ravens (8-6, LW: 13)
We all know their issues. But you have to respect the way they won at Detroit. Never underestimate the heart of a champion, indeed.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (8-6, LW: 9)
On the bright side, the offense played really well at Minnesota!
8. Cincinnati Bengals (9-5, LW: 7)
That performance at Pittsburgh, with the chance to virtually lock up the AFC North and take the lead for the No. 2 seed, makes it very hard to take them seriously as a Super Bowl contender.
6. New Orleans Saints (10-4, LW: 3)
Of all the bad losses in Week 15, the Saints had the worst one. OK, maybe Detroit did. But there's a huge difference between first place (No. 2 seed, bye week) and second place (going on the road in the playoffs) in the NFC South, especially for this Saints team. They better win at Carolina this week.
5. San Francisco 49ers (10-4, LW: 6)
They're as good as any team in the league. I just don't think they'll go into Seattle and win next month.
4. New England Patriots (10-4, LW: 5)
The loss itself at Miami isn't that disturbing. Tom Brady did throw for 364 yards without Rob Gronkowski, which is a pretty good sign moving forward. Interesting game coming up next week at Baltimore.
3. Carolina Panthers (10-4, LW: 4)
Next Sunday is basically a playoff game for the Panthers, given everything that's at stake. You'd figure the Carolina crowd will act like it is.
2. Denver Broncos (11-3, LW: 2)
Now that Miami helped them, there's no excuse. They have to handle business and get the No. 1 seed by winning out.
1. Seattle Seahawks (12-2, LW: 1)
Seattle played pretty well in New Jersey on Sunday. Get the feeling it won't be the last time we say that this season.
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