The New Orleans Saints travel to Charlotte to take on division rival Carolina Panthers in a game with first place in the NFC South on the line. The Saints are seeking to build off momentum from last week’s 44-23 beat down over Green Bay and win their first game of the season away from the Big Easy. Carolina began the season with a pair of victories but has won only once since; in spite of that the Panthers are still in first place in what is an off year for the NFC South.

Even with no rooting interest, this game is worth tuning into to check out a pair of very good rookie wide receivers: New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks (40 receptions on just 52 targets, 372 yards, 2 TD, 17 first downs) and Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin (38 receptions for 571 yards, 5 TD and 26 first downs), whom New England fans should remember from his strong performance in the preseason against the Patriots.

Who: New Orleans Saints (3-4) at Carolina Panthers (3-4-1)

When: Thursday October 30 at 8:25 pm ET

Where: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina

Television: NFL Network; announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson

Weather: Not a factor: 62° at kickoff with virtually no wind (2 mph) and zero chance of precipitation

Odds: Saints have settled in as a three point road favorite, with an over/under of 49½. The money line is hovering at New Orleans -170 and Carolina +150.

 

The Saints looked very impressive last week in their three touchdown victory over the Packers last week, but overall they have been rather ordinary this season. New Orleans has yet to win either back-to-back games or a notch a single victory on the road. As a team that was picked by many to go deep into the playoffs, their performance thus far has been rather underwhelming. On the other hand three of those losses were by a total of six points, with two of the defeats coming on field goals on the final play of the game.

One thing that would be very beneficial for the Saints would be to get their running game in gear. With running backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson likely to sit a second straight game with injuries, Mark Ingram will be asked to shoulder the load. Last week Ingram had a career-high 172 yards rushing on 24 carries, and could build on that Thursday. This year’s version of the Carolina defense is not the same as it was the last couple of seasons, when they were one of the NFL’s best. Carolina is allowing 135 yards per game – only four teams are giving up more – and their 5.2 yards allowed per rushing attempt is by far the worst in the league. Once the running game starts ripping off large chunks of yards, Drew Brees’ play action passes will become lethal.

 

The Panthers played very well and nearly beat the defending super bowl champions last week, losing on a touchdown in the final minute. Normally that might lead to a bit of a letdown, but I wouldn’t expect that against a team’s major division rival. It was the best defensive performance of the season by Carolina (13 points and 310 yards allowed); overall the Panthers D ranks still 26th in scoring at 26.0 points per game and has surrendered at least 37 points four times this season. Carolina has failed to get consistent pressure from the edge – they sorely miss Greg Hardy – so they will need Star Lotulelei and KK Short to collapse the pocket and create havoc in the interior. Those two were able to do just that last week against Seattle, constantly forcing Russell Wilson into hurried throws. It is imperative for them to dirty up the pocket, cloud up the passing lanes, and at minimum force Brees into hurried throws – if not knock him down and create some knockdowns and perhaps a strip sack or deflected pass that results in an interception.

Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams will make his first appearance in four games since he injured an ankle. Williams rushed for 210 yards against New Orleans in 2012; his return means the Panthers can finally get back to their offensive backfield of Williams, RB Jonathan Stewart and QB Cam Newton. Their biggest problem has been in the red zone. The Panthers failed to score a touchdown in three red zone possessions last week, the primary reason for their loss. Carolina is now a woeful 28th in the red zone this year, scoring just 46.2% of the time. When they get near the end zone the Panthers seem to be just as likely to go the other way as to find pay dirt: they have a league-leading eleven plays for negative yards in the red zone. Carolina has been too tentative and predictable in the red zone. The Panthers have passed on only 41% of their snaps inside the twenty, despite rushing for a minuscule 1.2 yards per carry when they are within the red zone.

 

Offense
Scoring: Saints 28.4 (5th), Panthers 20.9 (24th)
Yardage: Saints 445 (2nd), Panthers 332 (24th)
Yards per Play: Saints 6.4 (1st), Panthers 5.2 (25th)
Passing Yards: Saints 312 (2nd), Panthers 240 (17th)
Yards per Pass: Saints 7.5 (13th), Panthers 7.3 (18th)
Rushing Yards: Saints 133 (7th), Panthers 93 (27th)
Yards per Rush: Saints 5.1 (2nd), Panthers 3.5 (29th)

Defense
Scoring: Panthers 26.0 (25th), Saints 26.9 (26th)
Yardage: Panthers 378 (21st), Saints 390 (28th)
Yards per Play: Panthers 6.0 (26th), Saints 6.2 (30th)
Passing Yards: Panthers 243 (18th), Saints 289 (31st)
Yards per Pass: Panthers 7.4 (17th), Saints 8.2 (29th)
Rushing Yards: Saints 101 (10th), Panthers 135 (28th)
Yards per Rush: Saints 4.0 (12th), Panthers 5.2 (32nd)

Turnovers
Takeaways: Panthers 14 (T-5th), Saints 7 (T-28th)
Giveaways: Panthers 9 (T-11th), Saints 12 (T-20th)
Differential: Panthers +5 (T-6th), Saints -5 (27th)

 

The Panthers opened as 2½ point favorites, but that quickly shifted to New Orleans being favored by 2½ based on the Saints’ three-touchdown victory over Green Bay, and Carolina losing at home. Even as the game approached kickoff the money continued to come in on the side of the Saints, with the line moving up to three in most venues and as high as 3½ in some on Thursday. Home teams are 6-2 on Thursday’s this season, the Saints are 3-9 against the spread in their last twelve road games, and Carolina is 9-3 ATS in their last twelve games (5-3 ATS this season). Jimmy Graham looked a whole lot better in his second game back from a shoulder injury, while Cam Newton has been unable to duplicate the production of his first three season. This looks like the right time for the Saints to get their first road win of the season

 

Pick • Saints 27, Panthers 20
Saints -3
under 49½

 

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