W2W4: Saints at Panthers

There’s really no overstating the importance of this game for the New Orleans Saints (10-4).

If they beat the Carolina Panthers (10-4), they can prove to themselves and others that they’re capable of winning a big game on the road against a quality opponent. Better yet, they get to stay home for at least the first two weeks of the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 2 seed.

Lose, and the opposite happens. The questions about their ability to win on the road will continue to grow – and they’ll be forced to face those demons throughout the playoffs as a wild-card team.

The Saints just walloped this same Panthers team 31-13 two weeks ago inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. How can they get the same result away from their home comfort zone? Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

In Brees’ hands: Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be the best player on the field Sunday – and he’ll give the Saints their best chance to win. He threw four touchdown passes against the Panthers two weeks ago. No other quarterback has thrown more than one against Carolina all season.

But Brees has got to be more consistent than he has been in previous road performances. Specifically, he has to protect the football.

When Brees turns the ball over, you can instantly feel the momentum shifting inside of a stadium. And that’s happened in the first half of each of the Saints’ three most disastrous road losses this year (two interceptions at the New York Jets, a fumble at the Seattle Seahawks, two interceptions on the first two drives at the St. Louis Rams). If Brees and the Saints avoid those disastrous results early on Sunday, they’ve got a much better chance to avoid that “snowball” effect we’ve seen in recent road losses.

This year at home, Brees has been nearly perfect (23 touchdowns, three interceptions). On the road, he’s been far too human (11 touchdown, seven interceptions). He can’t afford to be human in this one.

Defensive priorities: Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins has insisted all week that there’s no “voodoo” or magic formula that has prevented New Orleans from winning on the road. They know exactly why they’ve been losing on the road – the two things that every team preaches in every game: Win the turnover battle and stop the run.

In their past three road losses, the Saints have forced zero turnovers. And in their four total road losses this year (including a close loss at New England), the Saints have allowed an average of 152.5 rushing yards per game.

Both of those trends will be tough to reverse Sunday. The Panthers are good at running the ball, and they’re good at protecting the ball. Even when the Saints blew them out two weeks ago, the Panthers still ran for 128 yards and didn’t turn the ball over once.

The Saints have only forced two turnovers in their past seven games.

“We just keep emphasizing it, and we’ve been talking about it, but we just haven’t been getting it done much,” Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “We’ve really been emphasizing [takeaways] this week. Everybody’s been buying in. We’re working as hard as we can on trying to knock the ball out and finding different ways to do that. We’ve just got to. That changes games when you get turnovers, so we’re doing everything we can as players and as coaches to get that turned around, and it will this week.”

The new guys: Do I even need to write this here? Is there anyone who won’t be watching Saints rookie left tackle Terron Armstead and new veteran kicker Shayne Graham on Sunday, anxious to see if coach Sean Payton’s bold roster switches pay off? Obviously Armstead is the biggest, boldest move since he plays such a critical position, since he hasn’t played a snap on offense this year, and since he’ll be going up against one of the NFL’s most disruptive pass-rushers this season in Greg Hardy. Certainly the Saints will try to give Armstead some help with chips and double teams – as well as calling plays that don’t require Brees to hang out too long in the pocket.

Key matchup: The Saints’ offense features two of the most unique matchup problems in the league in tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles. But Carolina can counter with two of the NFL’s best linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Graham had a big day the last time they met, with six catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns. But obviously the setting will be different this time. And Carolina’s defense has only allowed 11.9 points per game this season at home. … I think Sproles, in particular, needs to have a big day after a relatively quiet second half of the season.