Monday Night Football: Panthers can claw to their fragile play-off hopes

Cam Newton
Fire still burning: Cam Newton will be desperate to redeem his flagging reputation

Romilly Evans previews the Monday night, NFL action and thinks that the Panthers might pull off an upset.

"Blitzing is a risky strategy – particularly against a signal-caller as experienced as Newton, who will not shrink from standing tall in the pocket"

New Orleans Saints @ Carolina Panthers
Start-time: Tuesday, 01:15
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action

SuperCam and McCaffrey can cling to postseason hope

Roll the clock back to early November and some were tipping a white-hot Carolina Panthers to snaffle the NFC South from right under the New Orleans' Saints noses.

Worst case, they were going to make the play-offs as the wildcard no home seed wanted to draw. Fast forward to Week 15's MNF, however, and it appears Carolina are playing for little more than pride after enduring a nightmare six-game losing streak which sees their postseason hopes hanging by the thinnest of threads.

Conversely, the Saints have only gone on the bolster their position at 11-2 as the number-one seeds in the NFC. Now, we have an intriguing primetime tussle which could coalesce their contrasting fortunes in front of the eyes of a nation.

Yet, with the home comforts of the Bank of America Stadium, Cam Newton and Co will be desperate to atone for recent sins and send their faithful fans home happy for the holiday season in Charlotte. And I, for one, believe they can achieve a minor Christmas miracle.

After all, despite the ailing physical frame of Newton, their self-styled Superman can still get them rolling on offense with some deep downfield missiles. The trouble is head coach Ron Riviera seems less keen to chance his hard-running and big-bounding skills in the red zone, especially as the goal line approaches. I feel such concerns will be thrown out of the window tonight in a boom-or-bust performance from Newton, as the ailing 29-year-old strives to reassert his elite credentials. After all, win out, and a 9-7 record probably still gets them into a wide-open play-off country where anything can happen.

Newton will enjoy plenty of help tonight from his twin-threat RB Christian McCaffrey who has quickly established himself as one of the NFL's most versatile players. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry for a smidgeon short of 1,000 yards, while he also leads the league among running backs with a staggering 86 receptions for 701 receiving yards. Between these two playmakers alone, before we even mention Carolina's talented receiving corps, the Panthers can keep up with anyone - even the Drew Brees juggernaut.

Panthers' D can rediscover its pouncing potential against Brees

Their main issue actually resides in their perennially dominant defense whose surprisingly porous secondary keeps on coughing up chunk plays which Newton can't correct for. Small wonder the Total Points spread is set at 50 here, considering Brees and his powerhouse are coming to town, armed with McCaffrey's matching counterpart in Alvin Kamara - a tricksy tackle-breaker on the rush a flexible receiver.

Indeed, even without wideout Ted Ginn (whose protracted absence continues) Brees has more weapons at his disposal than Newton, and can always just let his thunder-and-lightning tandem of Kamara and Mark Ingram rumble along happily, if Carolina's secondary does shore up this evening.

That said, touchdown road-favourites are hugely susceptible in my book. Don't forget, Dallas' defense demonstrated that this Saints offense isn't beyond reproach only a fortnight back (restricting them to a meagre 10 points) while it appears the explosive Tre'Quan Smith is already being successfully unpacked by rival defensive co-ordinators. Playing in front of an excitable holiday-season house won't help Brees go to work with any clarity of mind either.

All of which means Newton need only maintain stride within a few very attractive handicap head-starts. Remember, New Orleans' defense is no great shakes. Sure, their corners usually bid to bring the heat and press coverage, making it tougher for Newton to hit his marks through closing pockets and narrowing windows. However, it's a risky strategy (in 2017, only a handful of teams blitzed more than the Saints and they ultimately paid for this predictability) - particularly against a signal-caller as experienced as Newton, who will not shrink from standing tall in the pocket and in the face of persistent pressure. Accordingly, McCaffrey could be in for another productive night under the big lights.

So, can a side on a six-game losing run snap the streak against the Super Bowl favourites? Well, if you can't take a leap of faith at Christmas, when can you? Believe.

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