KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: NBC, NFLN, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Heather Cox.
SERIES HISTORY: 44th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 23-20. Until the Saints claimed their first matchup this season, 41-38 on Oct. 16 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Panthers held the upper hand with six wins in eight meetings since 2012. The Saints have split their last six games with the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium since winning Super Bowl XLIV, but they have dropped three of four there since 2012. The Saints had a chance to win last year's game in Charlotte without Drew Brees, who was injured, but backup Luke McCown's pass into the end zone for Brandin Cooks was intercepted by Josh Norman with 1:09 remaining to help the Panthers hang on for a 27-22 victory on their way to a 15-1 season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: This will be the Disappointment Bowl, between two teams that were not expected to have a losing record at this point of the season and two quarterbacks accustomed to being among the best in the league. The Saints' Drew Brees has a history of mind-boggling stats and was the MVP in Super Bowl XLIV. The Panthers' Cam Newton is the reigning NFL MVP and is the most prolific dual-threat QB in history, with 127 TDs passing and 47 rushing.
In the first meeting on Oct. 16, the Saints couldn't run the ball -- they finished with 63 yards and a 3.0 average. The Panthers rank second in the league in allowing 79 yards per game and 3.4 per rush. The Saints will likely have to go to the air again -- last time, Brees passed for 465 yards, completing 34 of 49 attempts with four TDs and one interception. Wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas and tight end Coby Fleener all had big days, so the Saints will again be going after the Panthers' 25th-ranked pass defense, which gives up 272.6 yards a game and has allowed 17 touchdowns.
The Saints have been doing a better job against the run in recent games and are up to 19th, allowing 107.9 yards on the ground. They gave up 103 yards and just 3.8 per carry to the Panthers in their first meeting and have been strengthened by the return of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the 12th pick in the draft, from a fractured fibula. If they can stop Jonathan Stewart, who has been a nemesis for years, the Saints will concentrate on making Newton uncomfortable in the pocket.
Even though Newton almost directed his team to a comeback in the fourth quarter of their last meeting, the Saints limited him to 27 completions in 47 attempts for 322 yards. He had two touchdowns passing and one rushing, they sacked him twice and had one interception.
The Saints' top-ranked offense is clicking, which is bad news for a Panthers defense that gave up 523 yards at New Orleans in Week 6. But the Panthers believe their secondary has improved thanks to the return of cornerback James Bradberry. The second-round pick missed the first game with turf toe, and he should give Brees more trouble than fellow rookie Zack Sanchez did. But Brees will be able to rack up yards again if the pass rush doesn't show up. Good news for the Panthers is that a vital part of their team has reappeared, with 15 sacks the past three weeks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Panthers secondary. Brees has been a thorn in the Panthers' side for years, but never more than in his team's 41-38 victory on Oct. 16. He threw for 465 yards and four TDs, with one interception, and has now hit 66.2 percent of his passes for 5,724 yards and 38 TDs, with 18 picks, vs. Carolina since joining the Saints in 2006. Expect more of the same Sunday against the Panthers' young secondary, especially if the Saints can't get running backs Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower going against their salty run defense.
--Saints' front seven vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton. While they have to respect Newton's running aspect, the Saints must pressure him after sacking the Denver Broncos' Trevor Siemian six times last Sunday. Obviously, Siemian isn't Newton, so the Saints have to balance the risk of going after him and risk him escaping pressure and doing what he does best in the open field. The Saints did a good job of that in their first meeting last month, but Newton may have been more hesitant to take off because he was coming off a concussion. He has been sacked 23 times in eight games, so it can be done.
Injury Report (Updated, Thursday, 2:00pm):
--QUESTIONABLE : CB Delvin Breaux (fibula), RB Travaris Cadet (toe).
The New Orleans Saints ruled out left tackle Terron Armstead for Thursday night's game against the Carolina Panthers.
Armstead will miss a second straight week with his lingering knee injury. He also missed three games earlier in the season. Second-year tackle Andrus Peat has started in Armstead's absence this season.
Breaux is questionable for the game at Carolina with a fibula injury after he did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday. He returned for the last two games after missing six games due to a broken fibula.
--OUT: Colin Jones (concussion), LB A.J. Klein (concussion), T Michael Oher (concussion)
--QUESTIONABLE: C Gino Gradkowski (knee), C Ryan Kalil (shoulder)
Saints WR Michael Thomas. This rookie is having a great season, leading the Saints with 51 catches and second on the team with 613 yards receiving. But Thomas, a nephew of former NFL wideout Keyshawn Johnson, is coming off a nightmarish game against the Broncos. He had four catches for 40 yards, but lost two fourth-quarter fumbles that the Broncos turned into 10 points. Coach Sean Payton is confident the former Ohio State star will be OK. "It won't become a mental thing," Payton said. "Some lessons in our league are learned the hard way. You hope ball security isn't one of them, but that doesn't just happen to rookies, either, so we have to get that corrected or it will continue to repeat itself."
Saints QB Drew Brees threw three touchdown passes last week to increase his career total to 452, joining Peyton Manning (539) and Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre (508) as the only QBs in NFL history with at least 450 touchdown passes.
Saints RB Tim Hightower has 100-plus scrimmage yards in two of the past three games. RB Mark Ingram has four TDs (two rush, two receiving) in the past three road games.
Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart has four TDs in the past four meetings.
TE Greg Olsen has 23 receptions for 357 yards (119 per game) and two TDs in his past three vs. the Saints. He leads NFL tight ends in receptions (510) and receiving yards (712).
After each team lost to an AFC West opponent last week, they get back to the NFC South seeking a road back to .500 or above. If the Panthers don't stifle Brees, this could become a big shootout.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 35-28.