Carolina Panthers (1-4) vs. New Orleans Saints (1-3)
SERIES HISTORY: 43rd regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 23-19. The Panthers have held the upper hand in the series since the Saints swept both matchups in 2010 and '11. Carolina took both games in 2012 and again in 2015 and the teams split in the two seasons in between, giving the Panthers six wins in the past eight meetings -- winning three times in their last four visits to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Even though the Panthers went 15-1 in the regular season a year ago, the Saints kept both games close in losing 27-22 in Charlotte on Sept. 27 and 41-38 in the rematch on Dec. 6 in the Superdome.
KEYS TO THE GAME: This is a huge game for two franchises who expect to have more than one win apiece at this time, especially the Panthers as they seek some respect to follow up last season's trip to the Super Bowl.
After missing one game with a concussion, Panthers' QB Cam Newton, returns to action and needs to show he can also return to the form that made him the NFL's MVP last season. To do that, he will need to assure himself playing time by being aware of how to avoid big hits.
Although he creates some of his own problems, Newton's safety will not be helped by the absence of OT Michael Oher, although Mr. Blind Side's presence has not been worthy of another Hollywood movie, either.
The Saints didn't have a great day offensively in their last game before their bye, but they did two things necessary to pull out a 35-34 win over the San Diego Chargers. They ran the ball more efficiently than in their first three games and took advantage of two Chargers fumbles in the final seven minutes, turning both into touchdowns.
While the Saints need a healthy dose of RB Mark Ingram against the Panthers, QB Drew Brees must also get his team back on track through the air and attack a young secondary that gave up some plays late in a 17-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs on Monday night.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. Saints secondary. There's no doubt that the Saints are concerned about this matchup because Olsen has crushed them in their last three meetings. Last season, he made it look way too easy in posting a pair of 100-yard receiving games, grabbing 17 passes for 263 yards and a pair of TDs after having 10 catches for 72 yards with one score in their second matchup in 2014. Keeping him under 100 yards could be a key to the Saints' chances.
--Saints RB Mark Ingram vs. Panthers front seven. While the Saints haven't had much success running the ball this season, they'll have to do a better job this week. The Saints are tied for 28th with just 81.8 yards per game, but Ingram could be a key with his ability to pound the ball inside -- a strength of the Panthers defense because of the presence of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. A few good runs through the middle could open things up for the passing game.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Saints CB Ken Crawley. An undrafted free agent from Colorado, Crawley turned some heads in training camp and then was forced into the lineup when Delvin Breaux fractured his fibula in the season opener and P.J. Williams a week later suffered a concussion that sent him to injured reserve. Crawley has made some mistakes here and there, but he has held his own while playing 88 percent of the snaps in the first four games. Coach Sean Payton has been impressed by what he has seen so far, saying he likes that the game isn't "too big" for his improving rookie.
INJURY UPDATE: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton officially was cleared from the league's concussion protocol by an independent physician, the team announced Saturday.
Barring any setbacks, Newton will return from a one-game absence on Sunday.
Coach Ron Rivera said running back Jonathan Stewart, listed as questionable, will start against the Saints after missing the last three games because of a hamstring injury. Starting left tackle Michael Oher (concussion), cornerback James Bradberry (foot), cornerback Robert McClain (hamstring), defensive tackle Vernon Butler (ankle) and defensive tackle Paul Soliai (foot) were ruled out on Friday's injury report.
FAST FACTS: Panthers QB Cam Newton accounted for 12 touchdowns in his last three games against the Saints. Newton threw only one interception while tossing 10 touchdowns and rushing for two more scores ion those wins. ... RB Cameron Artis-Payne rushed for career-high 85 yards, two TDs last week. ... With 49,824 career passing yards for the Saints, Drew Brees needs 176 to become the sixth quarterback in NFL history to accumulate at least 50,000 with a single team. Brees' 207 passing yards in Week 4 were his fewest in any game since he managed only 147 at Seattle on Dec. 2, 2013. ... Saints coach Sean Payton is 1-2 at home in games against NFC South opponents since the start of the 2014 season. In their first division home game this season, the Saints dropped a 45-32 decision to the Atlanta.
PREDICTION: Cam seems to do well in the Superdome and he needs an MVP-type performance now to save the season.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 32-16.