Back in September, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera loudly proclaimed that anything short of a Super Bowl appearance would be unacceptable in 2018, but priorities and expectations change pretty fast in the NFL.
In their season finale, the Panthers instead will try to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first team in NFL history to start a season 6-2 and then lose 8 games in a row. Another loss could also leave them in the NFC South basement if the Buccaneers can defeat the Falcons.
Last week’s loss to the equally-disappointing Falcons epitomized the Panthers’ season. Taylor Heinicke made his first NFL start and looked good at the start. But an elbow injury knocked him out of the game for a while, and he was never the same when he returned.
Meanwhile, the Saints were regaining some of their swaggers by putting up 31 points and possibly ending the Steelers’ run of playoff appearances.
The Saints’ offense seemed to get back on track, boosted by the return of receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn takes a lot of heat off Michael Thomas and gives the Saints the reliable deep threat they were missing for much of this season.
With the Saints’ defense the best among the group of explosive offensive teams, they are the AFC favorite.
Injuries and notes:
Cam Newton is done for the season and Heinicke was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. Kyle Allen is your probable starter at quarterback for the Panthers with just-signed Garret Gilbert backing him up.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short is also done for the season.
New Orleans could be without both their offensive tackles for this game.
With the number one seed locked up, the Saints will likely rest some starters in Week 17.
With a new ownership group in Carolina who was reportedly talked into retaining Rivera before the season, rumors ran rampant that there would be a new man at the helm for 2019.
However, the team leaked reports that Rivera will be back. His track record, including a pair of Coach of the Year awards, reportedly earned him the right to show this was a fluky season.
Sean Payton has no such worries in New Orleans. Two recent games when their offense was shut down by the Cowboys and Ravens might end up a blessing as the team has those films to make adjustments before the playoffs. 31 points against the Steelers and Ginn’s return has Drew Brees and the rest feeling very confident.
How to watch the Saints-Panthers game
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Who will win the Saints-Panthers game?
New Orleans will probably start Teddy Bridgewater Sunday. In 2009, they rested most of their starters despite having lost their last two games. They kicked off their Super Bowl-winning playoff run with a 45-14 win, so don’t expect them to change precedent this week.
Bridgewater and the depth of the Saints are still too much for the Panthers to handle as a depressing season comes to an end.