In a season filled with plenty of big games, statement games and important match ups, the New Orleans Saints arguably play their most important game in week 16 on the road against the Carolina Panthers. Win, and the Saints will clinch the division and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Lose, and they cede the division to the Panthers and become a wild card team.
The last time these two teams squared off in New Orleans, the Saints went on to rout Carolina 31-13 and scored four touchdowns against a team that up to that point no one else had managed to score more than one. They were also excellent defending against the mobile and versatile Panthers’ quarterback, Cam Newton, sacking him five times.
That was two weeks ago, however, and at home in the Super Dome. This one will be on the road, where New Orleans has struggled most of the year.
Coach Sean Payton made some changes to the roster this week, hoping to get his message across that the team needed to play better and players would be held accountable for their performance. Kicker Garrett Hartley was cut and starting left tackle Charles Brown was benched, paving the way for rookie Terron Armstead to get his first opportunity to show his skills.
It is not just the kicker and left tackle positions that need to up their play, however. Quarterback Drew Brees had multiple turnovers last week against the St. Louis Rams, so he needs to shake last week off and help New Orleans start fast and hard. Likewise, Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham will need to show up like he did in the first half of the season, and Darren Sproles needs to be included as well.
Rob Ryan’s defense consistently got burned by the Rams and back up quarterback Kellen Clemens. After having performed fairly well most of the season, this was a bit disconcerting. Another five sack performance from his defense and the continued breakout performance of defensive end Cameron Jordan will be crucial for the Saints.
New Orleans’ season and opportunity for a first round bye as the No. 2 seed are not finished just yet, but if they perform how they usually have on the road, their road to the Super Bowl could become that much more difficult.