Spring 2017 we anxiously looked at the upcoming NFL schedule. After making certain we had few games in weather impacted stadiums in December, the next look was the divisional games. Then it hit us right between our eyes…DECEMBER…Carolina, Atlanta, Jets, Atlanta, Bucs! Five weeks that could create significant changes in the NFL playoff picture. Increase the burden on our boys in Black and Gold by making that first meeting with the defending NFC Champion (oh, it hurts to type that) Atlanta Falcons a Thursday night road game, four days after the battle with the Panthers. If you ever thought there was a scheduling conspiracy against the team from the Crescent City, you watch these two games occur after a late West Coast game the previous Sunday. Then the league flexes it from an early start to a 3:30 kickoff. Twelve days that can impact the entire season!
Even the most optimistic Saints fans would have never dreamed this schedule gauntlet would start with our beloved team sitting with eight wins. The Saints have been one of the key surprises in the 2017 league year. An impactful youth movement, leadership of key veterans, and an improving defense the Saints have surged to the top of the division. Great work – but damn, we can’t create any distance between either of the two contending teams. The Panthers and the Falcons will not go away. They are not just hanging around, they are streaking (Carolina, 4 in a row; Atlanta, 3 in a row). It all comes down to December. In April we only hoped to play significant games in the 12th month, now we are in control. So what can the Saints do to insure their place in the playoff tournament? EMBRACE THE GRIND!
Keys to the Game:
Our Cam is better than their Cam: Newton comes into the game with increasing swagger! Rivera has stopped trying to force him to be the quarterback he is not, his confidence is up and the team is on a streak. Our Cam is humbly playing at a Best in League level. Today, we need help and discipline from the opposite defensive end to keep Carolina Cam from dictating the game. If we can keep him contained from long runs, hit him in the mouth (no penalties) on the read option, and pressure him enough to have to win with his arm –then it will be good for the Saints! If Saint-killer Olsen misses todays game, can we afford to play spy on Newton?
Tackle vs Tackle: Injuries have tried to impact the Saints line play, by playing havoc on the offensive tackle position. Our beginning of season depth chart has never been on the field at the same time! The injuries to Armstead and Strief have forced us to play flexible. Peat, Ramczyk, and Kelemete have provided more depth and flexibility than we could have ever imagined. No matter which personnel package hits the field today – they must keep Drew clean! Panthers second ranked defense depends a great deal on the defensive line to control the line of scrimmage, pressure the quarterback and keep Kuechly clean. If our tackles can control and allow the three guys in the middle to build running lanes – this could be a long day for the Panther defense.
Third down efficiency: Our offense is playing in un-characteristically low third down conversion efficiency. We have been careless with penalties on third down, we have been forced into obvious passing situations, and we have lost tempo control of the down. Wilie Snead has been the missing link on third down. Prior to his suspension and injury, Snead has been a reliable first down machine. This year this has been a significant void. We need to be clean on third down and move the chains. Getting Snead involved early creates “revenge routes” for Ginn. I look for TG to have a record day on the turf against the team that misses him the most!
PREDICTION: This is going to be a ballgame! This could set up to be one of the best of the year! It is so stinking important that both coaches are downplaying its importance. The team that loses is not out, but the team that wins gets more comfortable. Aren’t you glad this game is played in our house? Saints 27 .. Panthers 24!