Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints
Monday December 9, 01:30
Live on Channel 4
The game of the weekend is the first in a private two-match knockout between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers for the NFC South title and, in all likelihood, the number-two seeding in the NFC behind the marauding Seahawks of Seattle.
The Panthers arrive at the Superdome as the hottest team in the league. They are riding an eight-match winning streak - with seven of those victories also covering the match spread on the Vegas line. In short they are exceeding expectations and gaining more supporters with every passing week.
The Saints, on the other hand, lost a few believers in that great disappointment which was Monday night's abject humiliation (7-34) at the Hawks' own Thunderdome. The pain and inconvenience didn't end there, though, as Sean Payton's troops were then grounded by bad weather for another day, trying to make the long trek home. Hardly ideal preparation and an even shorter "short week" is the consequence.
It's not time to tear up those ante-post vouchers on the Super Bowl yet, though, for New Orleans remain a different proposition at home, where they are 6-0 and have yet to fail in covering (or at least hatching matching) the game handicap. That fact alone accounts for their field-goal supremacy tonight, while their free-scoring nature under quarterback Drew Brees makes a cursory glance of the match spread and total points lines appear eminently surmountable.
That would be reckoning without the imposing Carolina D, however, which top the pops Points Conceded Per Game (a miserly 13) and rank second only to Seattle in Total Yardage Allowed (290 per game). While Brees had a day to forget against the Seahawks, he still heads the second-best receiving corps in the league (behind Denver) where Marques Colston, now back at full tilt after knee injury looks like a sleeping giant.
Former star running back Darren Sproles is also being incorporated into the target team, taking fewer snaps and snaffling more catches (seven last week), as veteran Pierre Thomas and the improving Mark Ingram offer more bread-and-butter ground gains. Sproles development as a master of both trades is taking time, but tonight could be the moment Payton relies on his twin-threat versatility.
And speaking of dual-danger men, QB Cam Newton has lead the Carolina offense well this term, scrambling for some vital third-down conversions and protecting the ball with a patient attitude. Sure, it's easier to play smart when you know your defense will keep giving you opportunities, but Newton's growth in maturity has been impressive.
When all's said and done, though, I can't get away from the homefield advantage when the Saints enjoy this evening. The Superdome is one of the most intimidating and raucous venues around. And while offensive co-ordinators may now be unlocking Rob Ryan's creative schemes, this amplified arena could turn Newton's young head into making the mistakes he has so far minimalized.
Carolina's secondary will also face their biggest challenge of their season against a receiving unit that will punish any slips from their safeties or corners. So while the suspicions persists that both these sides are equally matched but equally overrated (they have benefitted from soft schedules to date), New Orleans can take a clutch divisional lead tonight. The Irresistible Force may not be able to shift the Immoveable Object far. But it can at least nudge it out of the way for now.
Back New Orleans Saints (-3) to beat Carolina Panthers on Match Handicap @ 1.824/5 or better
Back New Orleans Saints (-1.5) to beat Carolina Panthers on First Half Handicap @ 1.824/5 or better
Back Over 24.5 New Orleans Total Points @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back D.Sproles to be First Touchdown Scorer @ 10.09/1 or better