NEW ORLEANS — With their eight-game winning streak a part of history, the New Orleans Saints suddenly find themselves in a position to lose their NFC South lead.
The Carolina Panthers, who are also 8-3, come into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday looking to avenge a 34-13 loss to the Saints in Week 3.
One thing is clear: The NFC South is the most competitive division in the NFL — third-place Atlanta is 7-4 — and the last five weeks will determine if one, two or three teams will make the postseason.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said the competitiveness of the division can be traced to the quality of the quarterbacks: Drew Brees in New Orleans, Cam Newton in Carolina and Matt Ryan in Atlanta.
“The quarterback (situation),” Rivera said. “We have three good teams with established quarterbacks. We have a tough, physical, young team down in Tampa Bay. That’s why I think our division is good.
“If you’re fortunate enough to have your franchise quarterback, I think you’re fortunate enough to be consistent. I think that’s the truth for all of us. I admire what they’ve done for New Orleans all those years. Drew Brees is (in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on) the first ballot. We know that. Coach (Sean) Payton has done a tremendous job with it and what he’s done is establish continuity. I think that’s important in this league. When you have some continuity and some familiarity. You can bring players in and plug them in and that’s what they’ve been able to do.”
The Panthers have won four straight games to move back into a statistical tie with the Saints atop the division, but the Saints hold a tiebreaker advantage with their victory Sept. 24.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said nothing is assured down the stretch, especially with the three teams bunched at the top.
“You look at the NFC South, and there’s a chance that three teams actually make the playoffs, which is absolutely crazy to me,” Davis said. “I think it really boils down to playing your best ball in November and December. That is when the playoff teams really show up and the really good teams in this league show up in November and December. That’s kind of been the message that coach Rivera has driven home to us since he’s been here. Under his leadership, we’ve been really good in those months.”
After displaying great run-pass balance during their winning streak, the Saints ran 52 plays in a 26-20 road loss to the Los Angeles Rams — including only 21 in the first half — and went 3 for 13 on third down. Brees said the Saints barely missed on several explosive plays and hurt their ball control by committing seven penalties for 112 yards.
“Obviously, coming off a loss on the road, we want to rally and get back on the winning track, especially the scenario with the team we are playing being a divisional opponent,” Brees said. “They have the same record as us. (We’re) both fighting for the same thing. This is a very important game. The situations only get bigger as we go along here and it’s everybody’s responsibility to be able to step up and make this our best week of preparation and therefore our best game on Sunday.”
Brees said the Saints’ offense may not be as explosive as it has been in the past, but likes the balance provided by rookie running back Alvin Kamara and backfield mate Mark Ingram II.
“I’d say just from sheer numbers and big plays I’m sure that the numbers aren’t what they have been in the past, but take a look at what’s going on,” Brees said. “We’ve been running the ball extremely well. We’ve been in games where it hasn’t been necessary to take additional shots or chances. We’ve thrown the ball efficiently to keep the chains moving, to keep drives alive, to go down and get points and possess the ball. It’s been a great complement with the run game.”
Payton said the Panthers are playing their best ball of the season.
“The last four weeks, they’re running the ball extremely well,” he said. “Their plus-minus in the turnover ratio has flopped entirely. Defensively, you’re seeing one of the better defenses in the league right now when you look at total yards, scoring — pick a number. They’re healthy and I think playing with a lot of confidence. The time of possession has been significantly in their favor as well. Certainly, in this winning stretch, they’re first in the league.”
The Saints held three players out of practice on Wednesday: left tackle Terron Armstead (thigh/shoulder), tight end Coby Fleener (concussion) and safety Marcus Williams (groin). They got good news when rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore (ankle) and cornerback Ken Craley (abdomen), who missed the Rams game, returned for limited practice.
The Panthers had six players who did not practice Wednesday: Davis (hamstring), receiver Devin Funchess (toe), running back Christian McCaffrey (shoulder), tight end Greg Olsen (foot), defensive end Julius Peppers (rest) and cornerback Daryl Worley (foot).