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NFL Preview - Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (12-3)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - Nice record, kid. Now have a seat.

The specifics may be different, but the gist may not when it comes to the interaction this week between New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and his prolific quarterback, Drew Brees.

The former Purdue standout and San Diego Chargers' flop climbed to the top rung of the NFL's single-season yardage ladder this past week at the Superdome, when Brees' 307-yard effort against Atlanta in a 45-16 rout pushed him to 5,087 yards through the first 15 games -- three yards better than Dan Marino's previous league mark set in 1984.

As a result, Payton may very well go another direction under center this Sunday when the Saints host the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the Week 17 finale for both teams.

New Orleans enters its last regular-season game locked in as the NFC South champion and is currently in possession of the conference's No. 3 playoff seed, which would mean an opening-round home date with the No. 6 seed.

The Saints can only change their position if they beat the Panthers and the incumbent No. 2, San Francisco, takes an upset loss in its schedule-closer at 2-13 St. Louis.

The last time the Saints entered in such a playoff-certain spot, they rested Brees for the finale against Carolina, and ultimately went on to win Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

"It was what we needed to do as a team," Payton said of that scenario. "You make decisions. They are not always right. You try to make them with the right things to help your team. We just have to be smart. We are playing well, with some momentum. Each year is different."

Complicating matters statistically is the fact that Brees leads New England's Tom Brady by only 190 yards for the league's top spot in yardage. With the Patriots still fighting for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, it's pretty likely Brady plays a good chunk of Sunday's game against Buffalo.

"I'm not really aware of the space between the two. I am probably better off not knowing," Payton said. "[We have to] put ourselves in the best position to play well and put ourselves in an opportunity to win a championship."

Brees's backup, third-year man Chase Daniel, has thrown just five NFL passes.

Meanwhile, though it'll miss the playoffs for a third straight year, Carolina is excited.

The Panthers struck gold with their No. 1 overall pick in last April's draft, selecting Heisman winner Cam Newton and subsequently jumping from two victories in 2010 to six this season as last year's Heisman Trophy recipient began rewriting his own section of the league record book.

Newton completed 12-of-17 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns in the Panthers' 48-16 win against Tampa Bay last week, surpassing Peyton Manning's previous record for passing yards by a rookie. He enters the final game with 3,893 passing yards and another 674 on the ground.

Additionally, Newton has accounted for 34 of Carolina's 45 offensive touchdowns. His 14 rushing scores are also a quarterback record for a single season.

"For me to come in and do this is a tribute to so many people, including my coaches," Newton said. "[My teammates] make my job easy. All I've got to do is put the ball in their vicinity, and they do the rest."

New Orleans beat Carolina, 30-27, in Charlotte on Oct. 9.

"New Orleans is going to have to win, so they're going to have to play and play hard," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We're going to show up and play as hard as we can, too. You want their best shot. You want to give your best shot and you want to take their best shot."

SERIES HISTORY

Carolina holds a slight 17-16 edge in the all-time series between these teams, but New Orleans has come out on top in each of the last three matchups in the set and handed the Panthers a 30-27 loss in Charlotte during Week 5 of this campaign. The Saints also took both 2010 meetings with Carolina, edging the Panthers by a 16-14 count in the Superdome in Week 4 and following up with a 34-3 rout road later in the year. Carolina last topped the Saints via a 23-10 verdict at Bank of America Stadium in 2009 and has lost two straight times at the Superdome since a 33-31 win there in 2008.

Payton has compiled a 5-6 record against Carolina during his five-year tenure with the Saints, while Rivera lost his first and only previous encounter with both New Orleans and Payton as a head man with this past October's result.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

Newton has accounted for 34 total touchdowns (20 passing, 14 rushing), the most by a rookie in NFL history, and his 14 rushing scores are the most ever in season by a quarterback while his 3,893 passing yards are the most by a rookie. In the teams' last meeting, Newton had two pass touchdowns and a rushing score, and has both thrown and ran for a touchdown in eight games this season, tied for most in NFL history for a single year. In his past four meetings with the Saints, running back DeAngelo Williams has rushed for 528 yards (132.0 per game) and four touchdowns. He is averaging 45.3 yards per rushing score in those four contests, and comes in with four touchdowns on the ground in his past three games. Backfield mate Jonathan Stewart had a 55-yard receiving touchdown in last season's visit to New Orleans, his longest career catch, and has set personal bests with 45 receptions and 406 receiving yards in 2011. Wide receiver Steve Smith is third in the NFC with 1,308 receiving yards and needs 92 to reach 1,400 for the third time in his career. He leads the NFL with 27 catches of 20-plus yards as well and had a 54-yard touchdown grab in the teams´┐Ż last meeting. Fellow wideout Brandon LaFell had career-long 91-yard touchdown catch last week and finished with 103 yards, his first career 100-yard game. Tight end Greg Olsen had a touchdown catch as well in the Panthers' last game against New Orleans.

Since entering the NFL in 2006, Saints safety Roman Harper has 17 sacks, the most by a defensive back. He has 7 1/2 sacks this season and needs one for the most by a player at his position in a season in league history. In the front seven, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar has 73 tackles and a sack through 15 games and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin has 18 tackles up front.

Statistically speaking, Carolina's offense is fifth in scoring (25.9 ppg), fourth in total yards (395.7 ypg), 11th in passing (246.1 ypg) and third in rushing (149.6 ypg). The Saints' defense is 15th in points allowed (21.5 ppg), 26th in total yards allowed (372.9 ypg), 30th against the pass (268.0 ypg) and 10th against the run (104.9 ypg).

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

The Saints have a team-record 6,857 total net yards and Brees has an NFL-best 5,087 pass yards, passing Hall of Famer Marino (5,084) for that coveted mark on Monday. The Pro Bowl quarterback has 12 games with 300 or more passing yards this season -- also the most in NFL history -- and has hit that mark in six straight games to tie a league record as well. Brees also has 20-plus completions in an NFL-record 35 straight games and has a touchdown pass in 42 consecutive contests, the second-longest streak in NFL annals. Running back Darren Sproles is the first player in league history with 1,200-plus yards from scrimmage (1,244) and over 1,200 yards on kickoff and punt returns (1,284) in a single year. Running back Pierre Thomas aims for a third game in a row against Carolina with a touchdown, while leading receiver Jimmy Graham leads all NFL tight ends with 91 receptions and is second at the position with 1,213 receiving yards. He can become the first tight end in league history with 95 catches, 1,200-plus receiving yards and at least 10 touchdowns in a season. Graham and Sproles (81 receptions) are the first tight end/running back duo in NFL history with 80-plus catches each. Wide receiver Lance Moore has five touchdowns in his past five games, but is doubtful for Sunday's tilt due to a hamstring injury. Fellow wideout Marques Colston has 998 receiving yards on the year and is on the verge of reaching 1,000 for a team-record fifth season.

Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson has 17 sacks in his past 22 games and needs one more to reach double digits in that category for the second season in a row. Linebacker James Anderson has 130 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries in Carolina's 15 games, while safety Sherrod Martin leads the backfield with 63 tackles and three interceptions.

By the numbers, the Saints' offense is second in scoring (33.5 ppg), first in both total yards (457.1 ypg) and passing (329.2 ypg) and ninth in rushing (127.9 ypg). On defense, the Panthers are 26th in points allowed (25.6 ppg), 22nd in yards surrendered (361.7 ypg) and 21st against both the pass (236.0 ypg) and the run (125.7 ypg).

KEYS TO THE GAME

Will he or won't he? Clearly, how much Brees actually plays will have a significant impact on the look of the game. If the controls are left to Daniel, much of the precision and pace of the New Orleans offense figures to be at least temporarily lost.

Newton world order. While Brees has racked up yardage in New Orleans, Newton has changed a culture in Carolina. His swagger was evident in the first few weeks even when wins were scarce, and his production down the stretch has helped the Panthers to victory in four of the last five weeks.

Match Game. Though the records are quite different, the Panthers' actually have a credible matchup with New Orleans in terms of strength vs. strength. And if the Saints choose to rest starters on defense as well, Newton and his explosive friends could benefit.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Saints are an established power. The Panthers are a team on the rise. But in Week 17, when a handful of players -- specifically Brees -- may not play very much, the scales tip a bit. Expect Carolina to be charged up to make an end-of-season statement against a team with more significant January conquests on its mind.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 28, Saints 24

12/29 15:16:34 ET

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