The New Orleans Saints (9-3) saved the best for last in the NFC South. They'll host the Carolina Panthers (9-3) for the first time this season Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Then they'll play again at Carolina in two weeks.
The Saints haven't been afraid to admit how big this game is. They've actually embraced it as they attempt to bounce back from their humbling 34-7 loss at Seattle this past Monday night. Whoever wins the NFC South will likely wind up as the NFC's No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
The Saints would obviously love to take care of business on their home field -- and history says they should. They've won 12 straight prime-time games at home, including the playoffs.
Here's what to watch for:
Containing Cam: The Saints got burned badly at Seattle by a mobile, dual-threat quarterback in Russell Wilson. Now they've got to face another one in Cam Newton. Obviously there are some differences between the two. For one thing, Newton is much bigger and more physical (6-foot-5, 245 pounds). For another, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said Wilson is quicker to take off and run, whereas Newton looks to pass first.
However, they're both equally dangerous once they take off -- Newton broke off a 56-yard run in a win over Tampa Bay last week. And both quarterbacks do a great job of extending plays by moving in the pocket, then throwing the ball downfield. The Saints obviously need to be a lot more sound in both departments in this game than they were on Monday night.
“That is what we just faced, and that is what we are going to face this week,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said of the quarterbacks. “They run the ball all day and then they hit these big, explosive plays down field. Or if something is not there, you have Cam Newton extending the play by getting out of the pocket, running, or someone getting open late in the play and he makes the throw."
Containing Williams: The biggest difference for the Saints' defense this week is that Newton will likely be their primary focus. Last week, their primary focus was stopping Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch -- and Wilson made them pay with play fakes.
However, the Saints can't ignore Carolina tailback DeAngelo Williams. Although Williams has had a relatively quiet season (610 yards and two touchdowns), the Saints know better than most teams how quickly he can bust loose for a big play. In Week 17 last year, Williams ran for 210 yards against the Saints, including runs of 65 and 54 yards.
Matchup to watch: Obviously the Saints thrive on exploiting matchups with unique offensive weapons like tight end Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. But the Panthers' defense (ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed and No. 2 in yards allowed) is better built to handle those matchups than most teams. Two of Carolina's best players this year are middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and outside linebacker Thomas Davis.
Kuechly hasn't been perfect in pass coverage this year, but he's an aggressive player who will take Graham head on when those two get matched up. Defenses that have been able to get physical with Graham and the Saints' receivers have had the most success against the Saints' passing offense over the years -- especially this year in losses to Seattle and New England.
“[The Panthers] are very, very physical at the line,” Graham said. “Their corners jam well. They like to disrupt. And Kuechly's a guy who's gonna look to disrupt and kind of mess up the timing of the route with Drew [Brees]. So I've gotta be ready to hopefully make an escape and get open.”