Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is arguably having the season of his career
Panthers @ Saints
Just over three months ago, before the NFL circus kicked into action, you’d have looked at this weekend and assumed the Seahawks’ visit to San Francisco would be Sunday’s big game – a potential division or even conference-decider. But with Seattle already in the play-offs and three games ahead of the 49ers with four games to go, the focus will instead be on the Superdome, for what looks like the game that will decide who will be the second seeds in the NFC, with the loser forced to play an extra game in the play-offs.
In the Cam Newton era, the Panthers have traditionally ended seasons on a roll, but seldom started them well enough to be a factor. This year, their momentum started earlier. Despite starting 1-3 (yep, they lost to the Bills), they have won their last eight games, including wins over the 49ers and the Patriots. With the Jets, Falcons and another game against the Saints in Charlotte to come, they’re in a good position to make the play-offs for the first time since 2008, a distant time when Jake Delhomme was the quarterback and Steve Smith was a sprightly 28 years young.
The Saints, on the other hand, have been consistently strong all year with intermittent defeats, bouncing back from a disappointing 2012 in the wake of the Bountygate scandal. Of their three losses, two are at least understandable: the late Tom Brady-inspired capitulation in Foxboro, and the crushing defeat in Seattle last weekend. The other was in New York at the hands of Geno Smith and the Jets, which looks even more bizarre in hindsight than it did at the time.
The obvious place to start is to compare the quarterbacks. While there are no doubts about the quality of His Holiness Drew Brees, there remain a few question marks about Cam’s ultimate potential. This is perhaps the biggest test in his career so far: a high-pressure game against a potential Super Bowl contender.
It’s also an enormous test of the Carolina defense, which has been exceptional of late. Four of the eight wins in this run have been by a score, and that is primarily because the Panthers have restricted their opponents to 16 points or fewer in seven of those games, the only exception being the game against New England. They also kept the Giants scoreless in September, and even restricted the Seahawks to just 12 points on the opening day. Second year linebacker Luke Kuechly is a candidate to follow up his Defensive Rookie of the Year Award from last year with the Defensive Player of the Year Award this year.
The Saints defense has allowed more points, but they have the offense to combat it, with Brees having numerous targets to choose from, the most notable being tight end Jimmy Graham. His fourth year in the NFL is proving to be by far his most successful, having already picked up twelve touchdowns and six 100+ yard games, both more than in any previous season. But even if the Panthers cover Graham (somehow), Brees still has the likes of receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore and rookie Kenny Stills, and running backs Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram to fall back on.
Surely this embarrassment of offensive riches will be too much for the Panthers to handle, especially in the intimidating atmosphere of the Superdome.
Betting Instinct Tip: New Orleans Saints -3 is 1.83 with Intertops Sportsbook
Cowboys @ Bears
Another decisive game for two teams aiming to win their division – and I can’t work out which is more likely, despite differing fortunes in the last two weeks.
After their bye week in week 11, the Cowboys were 5-5. Two wins since then against the Giants and the Raiders has left them on course for their first winning season since 2009. All four of their remaining games are winnable: a trip to the Bears, the visit of a Packers team that’s spiralling out of control, a visit to Washington, and the final game at home to divisional rivals the Eagles. That still should leave them with at least 9, if not 10 or 11 wins.
A few weeks ago, you would have thought that would be enough to win the NFC East. However, the Eagles have also begun a good run since Nick Foles suddenly transformed himself into an elite quarterback overnight. Four wins in a row have also lifted them to 7-5. They also have to play the Bears and two of their NFC North rivals, the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings, before the crunch game against the Cowboys on December 29. The Cowboys thus have to win all of their remaining games to be sure.
Meanwhile, the Bears are minding their own business, as they try and claim the NFL’s most wounded division and week Nine win over the Packers seemed to be a turning point. However the Lions promptly beat them the following week, and they have lost two of their three games since, including a shock overtime loss to the Vikings last weekend. This has left them at 6-6, a win behind the Lions and probably too far behind for a wildcard spot.
Chicago haven’t been helped by an unstable quarterback situation, with Jay Cutler fit, then injured, then fit, then injured again. These latest defeats have been overseen by Josh McCown, who has done a credible job filling in. In his four starts, he has thrown seven touchdown passes and has only been intercepted once. He has also thrown over 350 yards in the last two games, and you wouldn’t bet against him making it three in a row against Dallas, whose defense has been very generous to quarterbacks this season.
With Tony Romo having a good season and the Bears defense also leaking points, this will be a game decided by whichever defense will collapse the least. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m calling a shootout. All the weapons are there: McCown has running back Matt Forte and wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, all in superb form this season; Romo has a similarly powerful offense include wide receiver Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and running back DeMarco Murray.
It’ll be a disappointment if there aren’t at least 60 points on the board after this one, and I’m giving the edge to the in-form Cowboys.
Cowboys @ Bears Betting Odds:
Dallas Cowboys – 2.00
Chicago Bears – 1.83
(Odds, obtained from AllYouBet.ag, are subject to change.)
JAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.