NFL Carolina Panthers

5 Carolina Panthers Who Will Shine in Week 14

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5 Carolina Panthers Who Will Shine in Week 14

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Since its inception in 2002, the NFC South has been a division of parity. Almost every season there is new division champion, with nobodies rising to the top and supposed contenders lingering at the bottom. This year has been no different, with all expectations being tossed into the wind. The team that was supposed to be the class of this division, the Atlanta Falcons, are sitting in last place and are vying for a top 10 pick, a thought that seemed blasphemous in the preseason. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers was expected to make improvements this year, but the only improvement they've made is dumping Josh Freeman.

One of the few constants in the NFC South, at least since 2009, is that the Saints are always contenders, at least as long as Sean Payton is on board. His absence was felt last year during his suspension, the Saints failing to make the playoffs despite rich talent within the organization. They have returned to power though, going 9-3 so far. The biggest surprise in the division, however, is the Carolina Panthers, who have turned around their mindset and their fortunes to go from the punching bag of the division to contending for the division crown.

The Panthers are riding the longest win streak in the NFL at eight games, and they have a chance to become even hotter by beating the dominant Saints at home. Not only that, but it would give them the first place spot in the division, and put New Orleans in the position to have to win in Charlotte to even up the series. Carolina will need everyone to step up for this pivotal game, but only a few will shine brightly.

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Ryan Kalil

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Kalil has had some trouble the last few games clearing room in the middle for the Panthers run game, but it's not all his fault. Nate Chandler is weak at right guard, making Kalil have to compensate for him, making Kalil's job that much harder. In this game, however, it should be a bit easier. While the Saints defense has improved, they still aren't that strong on the interior, leaving Kalil to plow the way for the time crunching juggernaut that is the Panthers offense.

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Jonathan Stewart

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DeAngelo Williams has been hampered recently, so it's up to the newly healthy Stewart to pick up the slack. The Panthers will be relying heavily on the run to keep the chains moving and out of Drew Brees' hands, so it will be imperative that Stewart consistently gets positive yards. He doesn't necessarily need to have explosive runs, but he does need to get at least three-to-five yards a carry if the Panthers offense is going to be able to march down the field methodically as their game plan suggests.

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Steve Smith

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While the Panthers will want to run the ball as much as possible, Rob Ryan is a good defensive coordinator, and he is going to load the box to stop it. That going to leave New Orleans' corners on an island, an island that Steve Smith will need to get off of. Smith will need to beat Corey White and Keenan Lewis consistently on short routes to keep the chains moving and take pressure off of Cam Newton and the running game. Smith is adept at beating the press and using his hands, so he should see a lot of targets on Sunday.

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Charles Johnson

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Carolina's pass rush has been able to get by since Johnson went down from a leg whip, but they haven't been as ferocious without him. His return is well timed, though, because they will need his pass rushing presence if they want to stop Drew Brees. The Saints are very strong with their interior line, but their tackles are vulnerable, so look for Johnson to exploit that matchup and put heat on Brees. Hopefully Johnson can force at least one fumble, because Carolina will need turnovers if they want to keep up with the Saints' offense.

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Cam Newton

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It's a tired cliché, but in a game like this, the quarterback is the most important. Just as the Saints' offense revolves around Drew Brees, the Panthers' offense revolves around Cam Newton and his clutch factor. These two squads are very evenly matched and it will most likely come down to the wire, leaving each quarterback to lead their team to victory at the end. Just like against the New England Patriots, Newton will have to out-duel an elite quarterback, and he has proved this season that he can do that. Look for Newton to shine brightest at the end.