Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints
Start-time: Sunday, 21:25
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Saints' weaknesses to become a strength against a stuttering Goff
The race for the NFC South remains wide open. And with last year's Super Bowl chumps in Atlanta getting their champions groove back, the winner of tonight's encounter between the New Orleans Saints and the visiting Carolina Panthers takes on added significance. This division will, in all likelihood, come down to inter-team head-to-head record, so this match counts for so much more than bragging rights. Indeed, the number-two seeding in the Conference is on the line.
I fear I may've done something pathological to upset my editor in that this is the third week I've drawn a New Orleans game, and I'm still to call them correctly. However, considering the split personality of their defense these past couple of seasons, perhaps I'm not the only one to flip the coin each week wondering which of their twin-faces will be at the controls: the blitz-happy crew who connect with rival quarterbacks, or the rushers who storm the castle only to realise the king departed with the crown jewels moments earlier?
For Carolina, the role of king would typically be reprised by Cam Newton. However, his twin-strike skills are waning as the hits mount up, and he has been slow to go this term, after a shoulder injury limited his preseason prep. Indeed, if you take away Newton's running ability, he's become an erratic QB whose wellbeing doesn't seem likely to last into his mid-thirties. Carolina could soon have a contractual issue on their hands.
Fortunately for the Panthers, though, as Superman's star recedes into the firmament, the emergence of another hybrid threat in the backfield gathers pace. Running man Christian McCaffrey has bagged three touchdowns in the past three games, creating both space and separation whether he's pounding the hard yards, or pouching the pigskin as a receiver. His presence is, in turn, a game-changer for Newton as it allows him to get the ball out quickly and minimize the damage of oncoming defensive assaults. And, as I say, with New Orleans' propensity to bring the blitzkrieg, that's no small thing.
Ginn's the tonic as Saints seek to wash away taste of away losses
However, it's not as if the Saints don't have their own cancelling equivalent in Alvin Kamara, another rising star at RB whose talents are not the stuff of hybrid hyperbole. Kamara is the lightning to Mark Ingram's rumbling thunder, and this dynamic duo has added a new run-pass equilibrium to the one-dimensional headlong gameplan of leave-it-to-Drew (Brees). Instead, the veteran QB finally now has some brakes on the aerial juggernaut that he drives. However, after a fortnight of comparative inactivity (and some crucial defeats on the road) expect Sean Payton to pull those brakes off this evening, as let his old hand shine in the national spotlight of the Superdome.
Cue Ted Ginn Jnr, mired in productive-if-sparing employment of late, but a genuine speed receiver who can split secondaries and make Carolina rue the day they let him go. In fact, a genuine set of pacy paws is really the missing component from the Panthers' own receiving corps. Ginn split for New Orleans in a true "show me the money" moment of Jerry Maguire agency (he signed a three-year, $11m deal) and will need no extra motivation to stick the needle in the red against his old side here.
Five of the past six meetings between the Panthers and Saints have gone over on total points. Factor in Brees and Ginn being back at the helm of a resurgent passing game at home, and then add in the deep downfield strikes (allied to some pick-six potential) of Cam & Co who have scored 80 points in their last two outings. It's a recipe for a white-hot scoreboard at the Superdome.
At the end of the day, though, this is best left to Brees, home comforts, and a pig of a defense which has belatedly acquired some wings to fly. Alvin can add the stardust.
Back New Orleans Saints (-5) to win on the Match Handicap @ 1.9310/11 or better
Back New Orleans Saints (+1.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread (-2.5) @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Over 48 Total Points 1.9110/11 or better
Back A.Kamara to score First / Anytime Touchdown @ 8.07/1 / 1.9110/11 or better
Back T.Ginn to score First / Anytime Touchdown @ 10.09/1 / 1.9110/11 or better