So how long have we handed the NFC South to the Saints? Early October, at least for me. After Week 5, these were the division standings:
Since then, New Orleans is 5-4 and Carolina 9-1. That’s how you narrow a cavernous gap. Both teams stand 10-4 entering the big game of the NFL weekend, the game for the lead in the division. And since Carolina plays 4-10 Atlanta in Week 17, and New Orleans plays 4-10 Tampa Bay in Week 17, the Saints-Panthers game looks very much like the NFC South championship game in Charlotte Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
How did it come to this for New Orleans, a team that looks so dominant at home and so mistake-prone on the road? I watched the Saints’ loss at St. Louis last week, the embarrassing 27-16 debacle that wasn’t nearly that close, and the mistakes were alarming. Drew Brees threw interceptions on the first two series. The first was a badly underthrown ball to Jimmy Graham. The second was one of the biggest brain-cramp throws of Brees’ career, into triple-coverage just inside the end zone, an easy pick. Brees didn’t have a great chance in the game after that, in large part because Rams pass rusher Robert Quinn tormented left tackle Charles Brown all day. Brown was playing in slow-motion. Quinn was Usain Bolt. It was as ugly a matchup as you’ll see. For more insight, Greg A. Bedard wrote about how Quinn abused Brown in his Pressure Points column.
What else you noticed: The Saints got punched in the mouth a lot by a physical team. And they never had an answer for it, which bodes well for Carolina.
“You watch the Saints in the games they lost recently,” said linebacker Thomas Davis of the Panthers after practice Thursday. “You see teams with really physical defenses. We knew exactly how St. Louis was going to play them, because that’s the way they play—intense, chippy, extra stuff after the play. They did a great job playing a real physical game.”
Which is exactly the kind of game Carolina expects to play, except for the extra stuff.
“The comparisons are very valid,” said Davis, “because we play a physical style too. Look at the numbers. Except for Seattle, our numbers are better than the numbers on the teams that beat them. So we have what it takes to get the job done Sunday.”
This is an overly simplistic way to look at it, but it’s real: If Brees plays the kind of clunker he played last week, the Saints are done. They won’t win. New Orleans isn’t good enough to win by running game and defense alone. And I wouldn’t eliminate him playing a clunker. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson will put on pressure similar to Chris Long and Quinn last week. And the whole storyline of the road woes can’t be eliminated here. The Saints are 1-4 in their last five times out of the Superdome. “The first thing you notice about home and road for them is how precise they are about everything at home,” Davis said. “They do so much better executing their offense at home. Drew can make his checks, line his guys up right and put his guys exactly in the same position they should be in. But on the road, especially if the crowd is loud, he’s at a disadvantage. Maybe he doesn’t get his guys in the right position or run exactly the play he wants because he doesn’t have time to get out of one. But it’s noticeable.”
The reason this game is so important to New Orleans—which routed Carolina two weeks ago in New Orleans—is a loss would likely make them a wild-card team. And wild-card teams have to play three road games and one at a neutral site (New Jersey this season). So the task for the Saints would be borderline hopeless, with their recent road history, if they lose in Charlotte Sunday.
I asked Davis if what had happened the last two months surprised him. “Not at all,” he said. “This is the season we imagined it to be. It feels good to be in position to control what happens to us.”
Both of these teams are, which make this game so compelling.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Antoine Cason, cornerback, Arizona (No. 20). Cason picked off two Ryan Fitzpatrick passes last week, returning one for a touchdown, and the Cards have three pick-6s in the last four weeks. I mention that because they’ll need to force a turnover or three against a Seattle team that plays fantastic at home (14-0 in Russell Wilson’s career). Cason is an aggressive corner who can be baited—but his TD last week came on a play in which he looked to have baited Fitzpatrick. I don’t like Arizona’s chances much Sunday, but I especially don’t like them if they don’t force two or three turnovers.
Sound Bite of the Week
“I want to put the offense on my back. I want the ball on every play. I want to roll.”
—Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who takes a 122-yard lead in the race for the NFL rushing title into Sunday night’s game against the Bears in Philadelphia.
With two games to play, 162 yards separate the top four rushers in the NFL. McCoy’s the favorite, with 1,343 yards. Adrian Peterson (1,221) returns after a week off to rest a bum foot to run against rugged Cincinnati, and Matt Forte (1,200) and Jamaal Charles (1,181) need a couple of big weeks to stay in contention.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The last game at the ‘Stick. Candlestick Park opened 53 years ago, and it’s never been the belle of the sporting ball, but it has had some tremendous events there. Willie Mays and Joe Montana plied their trade there; Jerry Rice and Willie McCovey too. And Monday night, when Atlanta plays at the 49ers, the old barn will host its final football game. I’m tempted to say good riddance, because it’s an awful place, but there’s so much history there, and history at a dump is still history.
2. The underrated Tannehill. Raise your hand if you knew Ryan Tannehill, at Buffalo on an unseasonably warm (50 degrees, rain) Sunday in Orchard Park, needs 373 yards in his last two games to join Dan Marino as the only Dolphins quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season.
3. The Bengals trying to hang on in the AFC North. The good news: Cincinnati’s 6-0 at home, and the Bengals finish with the Vikes and Ravens there. So I’d still take the Bengals (9-5) to win the division over the 8-6 Ravens. But the bad news: In the event of a division tie after 16 games, Baltimore makes the playoffs and Cincinnati would either be the sixth seed or out of the playoffs.
4. Everyone trying to hang on in the NFC North. How great would it be if, after Sunday, Chicago and Detroit were 8-7 and Green Bay 8-6-1? Quite possible, if the favorites hold and Philly beats the Bears, Detroit beats the Giants, and Green Bay beats Pittsburgh.
5. Aaron Rodgers. Looks like he’s not playing. Looks like he is playing. Which quote are you trying to divine? Which tea leaves are you trying to read? Listen hard this afternoon for the latest on Rodgers from Mike McCarthy. But I’ve got enough confidence in Matt Flynn after his 34-point second half against Dallas last week that I’m taking the Pack over Pittsburgh regardless.
6. Anyone in the AFC want the top seed? The Patriots have played cliffhangers five straight weeks, losing twice. Denver played in quicksand in losing at home to San Diego last week. Luckily for the Broncos, they’re at 2-12 Houston Sunday. I do believe Peyton Manning can throw left-handed Sunday and win. (Love this factoid: Matt Schaub threw four touchdown passes to lead Houston over Denver last season, outdueling Peyton Manning. That’s last season, people.) The Pats have to beat old nemesis Baltimore in the Land of the Crabcake.
7. Sunday-nighter in Week 17. The 8:30 p.m. game in Week 17—the 256th and last game of the regular season—could be picked as soon as Sunday night. Just for clarification: The game is chosen by commissioner Roger Goodell and TV czar Howard Katz, who hope to have a matchup as close to win-and-you’re-in and lose-and-you’re-out significance as possible. Green Bay-Chicago and Philly-Dallas look the most likely at the moment.
8. The Kirk Cousins stat machine. Dallas has allowed 82 points and eight touchdown passes to backup quarterbacks in the last two weeks. Cousins is a fellow backup. On the first FOX closeup of Cousins Sunday, watch for the stream of drool out of the side of his mouth.
9. Jobs on the line. Rex Ryan doesn’t want to lose to the Cleveland Browns Sunday, though it may be too late to save himself. Mike Munchak cannot afford to be swept by the Jags, and Tennessee’s at Jacksonville Sunday. And Jim Schwartz will get no extra credit for beating the Giants Sunday. He will, however, get to pack the UHaul if somehow the Lions lose at home to a team playing terribly.
10. Arizona, with a Herculean task. Last time they entered the home of the 12th Man, the Cardinals were nipped by Seattle 58-0. That was 54 weeks ago. Prediction: Cards won’t lose by 58 this time. But I like Seattle quite a bit.