Friday evening’s news that the team and Sean Payton agreed in principle on a new five-year contract extension added to a Saints win on Sunday over the Carolina Panthers (6-9), would certainly help shoo away the dark cloud that has seem to hang over the team all season long.
New Orleans (7-8) is trying to finish the season on a three-game winning streak and players along with coaches have stressed the importance of finishing with an even mark and what it would mean. “Just the fact that we never quit,” says Saints safety Roman Harper. “We continue to fight through a little bit adversity which we’ve had all year long, all off-season. As a way to go out on top and just understand that half the teams in the league are going to end their season on a loss and we don’t want to be one of those teams.”
The Panthers head into the contest on a three-game winning streak. “Defensively, the Carolina Panthers are doing a good job down there,” says Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt as he breaks down the Panthers challenges.
“They’re going to give us a lot of single-high safety which will include man and zone on second down. They’ve got a good mix with pressure and coverage and it’s going to be based on the personnel we have in the game. When it gets to longer yardage situation, they’re going to play what you guys all know as Tampa 2 and longer than that will be quarters coverage. Offensively, they’re trying to get the ball to Steve Smith down there and (Greg) Olsen. The close they’re getting to the goal line the quarterback’s keeping the ball and making plays with his legs. We’ve got to be good down there, try to score touchdowns and hold them to field goals. They’ve done a good job down there.”
The Panthers enter the game on a three-game winning streak and are looking more like the team many thought they’d see this season. “I think we’re playing better,” says Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. “We figured some things out and are doing some things differently and better.The hardest thing we’ve had to struggle through most is our offensive line. As that group has kind of solidified, we’ve played better. The hard part now is obviously we have a couple more injuries there and trying to patchwork that. Hopefully our guys can step up and we can make some plays.”
“Everybody feels like we’re playing well,” says Panther’s receiver Brandon LaFell of their season that could have been. “It’s kind of a bittersweet moment, because we feel like we should have been playing like this all year long and if we were playing like this all year long, we feel like we should have won a lot of these close games that we lost.”
Carolina won the first meeting back in Week 2 by a score of 35-27 in a game in which the Saints had more first downs, more total yards offensively and a greater time of possession. The Panthers rushed for 219 yards however as it was the second game for a Saints defense that would go on to struggle most of the season.
“I think we tried to do too much the last time we played them,” says Saints defensive end Will Smith comparing the defense from that game to now. “Going into this game we tried to simplify things continue to do the things that we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks.”
“When we faced them the first time to where we are now it’s night and day,” stressed Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton. “So I’m excited about that fact but they’re a team that causes a lot of mix matches and really tests the defense to be discipline. So it’s going to take all facets of the defense to come together and stay together as a unit and go out and handle business.”
“I’ll tell you what it looks like right now, they look like they are hitting on almost all cylinders,” Rivera says of the Saints defense. “There are still some things they have to learn. The system that coach Spags uses is pretty much the one that I grew up in when we were both in Philadelphia under Jim Johnson and if you expect it to show up the first day, it’s not going to happen. It takes time. Once these guys learn it and learn to communicate within it, it’s going to get better and better. That’s what you’re starting to see. What they did to Tampa Bay was pretty impressive. I’ll tell you that right now. And then last week, fighting with Dallas, that was a fistfight and a heck of a football game. Both teams had explosive offenses and the defenses were fighting to keep up with them. That was a great game and I enjoyed watching the Saints games offensively, defensively and one special teams. My hat’s off to them. They’ve gone through a lot this year. The thing that they do and what the players are doing and they are all fighting.”
Both teams feel that 2012 has been a disappointment and picking up a win heading into the offseason is something both clubs have stressed is important to their futures.
The Saints defense is playing much better than the start of the season and no doubt will have a better plan in place for Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and his abilities. Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the two-game winning streak has thrown seven touchdowns and zero interceptions and is playing as if he has something to prove. Brees in Week 2 threw for just one touchdown and two interceptions and knowing his competitiveness is looking to make up for that stat line. The running game has also picked up as running back Mark Ingram has been running like his contract depended on it lately.
Give me the Saints because of an offense that is rolling and a defense that has been reminded all week that just 281 yards would make them statistically the worst defense in NFL History in yard allowed. Add a charged up crowd that will still be buzzing because of the Sean Payton news and I see the Saints winning 34-23.