CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It’s been a rough season for the entire NFC South, but that doesn’t make tonight’s matchup between the visiting New Orleans Saints (3-4) and host Carolina Panthers (3-4-1) any less critical. The winner will take sole possession of first place as the division’s only .500 team.
The Saints are the hotter team. They just played their best game of the season four nights ago in a 44-23 rout of the Green Bay Packers, and Carolina has lost two straight. But the Saints are 0-4 on the road this season and 2-10 over their past 12 road games, including the playoffs.
That stretch includes a gut-wrenching last-minute 17-13 loss at Carolina in Week 16 of last season, which ultimately decided the NFC South title.
Here’s What 2 Watch 4 in the rematch:
Rookie receivers: Two of the NFL’s leading candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year will be on display on a national prime-time stage tonight -- New Orleans receiver Brandin Cooks and Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Benjamin immediately emerged as Carolina's most dynamic weapon and might have had his best catch to date last week against Seattle. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder has 38 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns. Coach Sean Payton said the thing that stands out most is Benjamin’s "catch radius."
Cornerback Keenan Lewis said, "He’s 6-forever. I call him 6-forever. He looks like he keeps growing by the week. He can go up and get the high ball, an extremely gifted athlete who runs good routes."
Cooks’ production has been a little more sporadic since he is playing in a deeper offense. But he just had his biggest performance yet against Green Bay, with six catches for 94 yards and a touchdown and a 4-yard touchdown run. The blazing-fast, 5-10, 189-pounder has added a dimension to the offense, whether he’s running deep routes, screen passes or end-around runs. He has 40 catches for 372 yards and two TDs, plus six carries for 68 yards and a score.
Exploiting the Panthers' offensive line: The Saints’ pass rush has finally started to heat up with eight sacks over the past nine quarters -- including two by Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan this past Sunday. They will need that to continue against an injury-depleted Carolina offensive line that will feature undrafted rookie David Foucault in his starting debut at left tackle.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is known as a tough sack because of his combination of size and athleticism. But he’s not impossible to bring down, as the Saints proved by sacking him a total of nine times in the two meetings last season.
Keep feeding Ingram? The Saints mixed the run and pass as well as ever in the Payton-Drew Brees era on Sunday night, with Mark Ingram running for 172 yards and a touchdown, and Brees throwing for 311 yards and three touchdowns (all of them coming on play-action passes).
There is no reason for them to stop feeding Ingram against a Carolina defense that ranks last in the NFL by a wide margin this season, allowing 5.2 yards per rush. But that doesn’t mean the Saints will take the ball out of Brees’ hands.
Brees is still by far the Saints’ biggest asset. After completing 27 of 32 passes against Green Bay, he is once again leading the NFL in completion percentage at 69.5 percent. He just needs to cut down on the costly interceptions that have crept up too often on the road dating to last season. Since the start of last season, Brees has thrown 34 TD passes and 6 interceptions at home, with a 21-15 split on the road.