Saints to tame Panthers in the Superdome

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is arguably having the season of his career

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.)

 

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Sports blogger JamesJAMES 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+.

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Race for NFL playoffs hots up in the cold

Can Larry Fitzgerald help the Cardinals keep up their playoff chase?

Can Larry Fitzgerald help the Cardinals keep up their playoff chase?

Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally where the NFL switches into a higher gear as the race for the playoffs heats up. This year is no difference and two games this weekend will decide the shape of the post-season in the NFC.

Cardinals @ Eagles

Three weeks ago, this game looked like being a boring irrelevance as both teams slid towards winter mediocrity, however recent bursts of form have seen Arizona and Philadelphia enter the last few weeks of the season with the playoffs in sight.

Despite an inferior record, the 6-5 Eagles have a smoother road to the knockout stage than the Cardinals. Consecutive wins over the Raiders (featuring 7 (seven – such a ridiculous number that it demanded double brackets) Nick Foles touchdown passes), Packers and Washington Professional Football Team (no place for that nickname), have put them atop the NFC East alongside the Cowboys, even before Dallas’ traditional wintery demise. Their offense is moving the ball nicely, with Foles playing the best football of his young career alongside the league leader in rushing, LeSean McCoy. The Chip Kelly offense has breathed new life into the slumbering DeSean Jackson. After a quiet couple of years, Jackson has the sixth most receiving yards in the league thus far this season, and alongside the controversial Riley Cooper, he makes up one half of a fearsome duo.

The real question mark for the Eagles is their defense. Yes, they’ve restricted teams in their last three wins, but with all due respect Terrell Pryor was barely fit, Scott Tolzein continued to be Scott Tolzein and RG3.0 yards per attempt is a different beast to last year. The newly invigorated Carson Palmer will be a trickier test.

Or will he?

There’s no doubting Carson Palmer’s upside. The former Heismann Trophy winner and number one overall pick in 2003’s talent is not in doubt, but his decision making occasionally is. There’s no QB in the league who throws into double or triple coverage with more regularity, but very few are able to do so with such accuracy. It’s that aspect of Palmer that makes him both frustrating and exciting, and with a pair of receivers such as the legendary Larry Fitzgerald and the breakout Michael Floyd he’s able to take more risks than many signal callers in the league. The Cardinals sit at 7-5 and in with a good shot at the final NFC wildcard spot, but face tough competition from divisional rivals, the San Francisco 49ers.

Unlike the Eagles, Arizona’s defense has been the real star this season. They restricted Andrew Luck and the Colts to just 11 points last weekend, and will go into this game confident of a similar performance, with their dominant defensive front backed up by the star power (and talent!) of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary.

It’s a tough one to call and both teams will know that a win is crucial to keep them in the playoff hunt, but I fancy the Cardinals defense to make the difference in this one.

Betting Instinct tip: Cardinals +3  is 1.91 with Intertops Sportsbook

Saints @ Seahawks

The matchup between possibly the two best teams in the NFC will go a long way towards determining the playoff hopes of these two sides. Both New Orleans and Seattle probably hold the two best home-field advantages in the league and a number one seed in the NFC for either side will make them very tough to beat. Seattle go into this one with a single game lead over the Saints and the winner of this one will see it as a huge step towards the Superbowl.

For the Saints, there was never any doubt about the productivity of their offense going in to the season – the combination of Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and a myriad of receivers meant scoring points wasn’t going to be the issue. But New Orleans has stepped up on the defensive side of the ball this season. Rob Ryan has been the brains behind the revival from last year’s historically bad unit, and without adding any spectacular pieces (rookie Kenny Vaccaro has been impressive) there has been a huge improvement in that unit – enough to keep them in games when their offense has spluttered.

The Seahawks are known for their tough, uncompromising defense, and this season has been no different. They’ll be without a couple of key pieces from their secondary on Monday after (MORE!) suspensions for substance-related misdemeanours but it still remains a team strong on that size of the ball. That’s not to suggest that the Hawks will struggle to score points – Russell Wilson has continued to impress in his second season, and will be delighted to have Percy Harvin alongside him, after a small debut cameo in their game before the bye week. Add that to Marshawn ‘Beast mode’ Lynch and you have an offense that will go toe-to-toe with the Saints.

There’s much to love about both of these teams, but the line is too high here to back the Seahawks.

Betting Instinct Tip: Saints +5 is 1.91 with AllYouBet.ag

Jamie avatarJamie Cutteridge is a journalist for a real magazine, but spends an inordinate amount of time writing about NFL. He’s the editor-in-chief of anygivensundaynight.co.uk and its associated twitter feed @UKNFL