CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-5) AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5)
SERIES HISTORY: 47th all-time meeting. Panthers lead series, 24-22, going 12-11 both at home and on the road. The Saints defeated the Panthers 34-13 in Week 3 in Charlotte, N.C., and 31-21 in Week 13 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. These teams have met twice per season as division rivals since Carolina joined the league in 1995, but this is the first time they have met in the playoffs.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Saints want to make things as easy as possible on Drew Brees and as hard as possible on Cam Newton. That means getting the ball to Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II early and often and sprinkling in a few throws to Michael Thomas to get Brees into favorable down-and-distance situations.
On defense, the Saints want to contain the Panthers' running backs and Newton's scrambling so he has to try to win the game throwing from the pocket to a group of limited receivers. The plan worked well in the first two games.
The Panthers are probably desperate to get back to establishing a rushing attack, particularly with Newton off the mark too often across the past two games. The Panthers realize a good start would be helpful as well, particularly going into a hostile environment.
The Panthers are bound to try to mix up their coverages in ways they think will counter Brees' ability to dissect the defense. The Panthers have been best on defense when they have applied pressure on quarterbacks, and they have the capability to do that with a veteran front that they have tried to keep fresh for assignments such as this. If the front can keep the Saints' rushing attack under control, the Panthers will be able to provide more help for the secondary in passing situations.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Saints RBs Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara vs. Panthers' defensive front. The Panthers need to control the dynamic Saints running backs at the line of scrimmage. Ingram rushed for 85 yards, including a 72-yard burst, in the most recent meeting. When Kamara gets loose, he's even more difficult to handle. He racked up 60 rushing yards and 66 receiving yards and scored twice in the December meeting.
--Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. Saints' safeties. Olsen is healthy for this game after missing the first two matchups due to injury. In 12 previous games against New Orleans since joining Carolina, Olsen has 60 catches for 644 yards and four touchdowns. With Kenny Vaccaro on injured reserve, rookie Marcus Williams, who had two interceptions last week, will likely draw Olsen quite a bit.
--Saints Ts vs. Panthers DEs Mario Addison and Julius Peppers. LT Terron Armstead (thigh) is hopeful of starting after missing last week's game, but he has been unable to finish a few games because of injuries. When he's out, Andrus Peat moves to tackle and Senio Kelemete plays left guard. The left tackle and rookie RT Ryan Ramczyk will have an important responsibility to slow down the Panthers' ends and allow Brees to operate in comfort.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
--Questionable: T Terron Armstead (thigh), DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. He had a rough day in Atlanta and showed some frustration, particularly after a dropping a pass. This will be the rookie's first playoff game and the Panthers believe he's wired for the spotlight, so he's bound to have a chance to make plays. He accounted for only 49 yards from scrimmage in the December loss at New Orleans.
FAST FACTS: The Panthers are in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. ... Carolina ranked third in the NFL with 50 sacks and was the only team in the NFC with two players with at least 10 sacks. DE Mario Addison and DE Julius Peppers each tallied 11. ... QB Cam Newton has 10 TDs (eight passing, two rushing) in six career playoff games. He led NFL QBs with a career-high 754 rushing yards and tied for the lead with six rushing TDs. ... The Saints won the NFC South for the first time since 2011. ... New Orleans ranked second in the NFL, averaging 391.2 yards per game. ... Alvin Kamara (1,554) and Mark Ingram II (1,540) became the first pair of RB teammates in NFL history with 1,500 scrimmage yards each. ... Saints coach Sean Payton has won a franchise-record four division titles. ... QB Drew Brees ranked fourth in the NFL with 4,334 passing yards and extended his NFL-record streak to 12 seasons with 4,000. His 72 completion percentage was the highest in NFL history. ... WR Michael Thomas ranked third in the NFL with 104 catches. His 196 receptions are the most by a player in his first two seasons in NFL history. ... DE Cameron Jordan tied for fourth in the NFL with a career-high 13 sacks. He was the only NFL D-lineman with 10-plus passes defensed (11).
PREDICTION: The Saints have two things they have not often had -- a running game and a good defense -- and should pull off the trifecta against the Panthers.
OUR PICK: Saints, 30-20.