So this is it folks, the battle for the NFC South title. The Saints, as bad as they've been on the road lately, will have to win away from the Dome if they want to end the season with their an NFC South crown. No one said it would be easy, but when the team was sitting at 5-0 earlier in the year I didn't expect it to be this hard either. Here are the five things I'll be looking for in this critical game:
1. How does Terron Armstead hold up?
Interesting timing to make the decision to have a brand new left tackle plugged into your offensive line. But Sean Payton felt he had to do something given the disastrous play of Charles Brown. 3rd round rookie Terron Armstead, presumably the guy the Saints hope will be their left tackle of the future, gets his first start of his career on the biggest stage. Will he be even worse than Charles Brown? A slight improvement? Better than our wildest imagination? I can't wait to find out. It'll either be a trainwreck or a pleasant surprise and not much in between, I would think. How Shayne Graham does is of interest, too, but I believe how Armstead plays will be much more critical to a win.
2. Can the Saints get off to a good start early?
Part of the road woes have been linked to really poor starts. 3 and outs and turnovers on their first few offensive drives put the Saints down multiple scores in the first quarter against both the Seahawks and Rams. In fact, they're usually slow starters at home too. This team has made a habit of playing their way into games this season, or sometimes not when it's too much catch up needed from the beginning. This time I'd love to see them have intensity and focus from the first snap. That will go a long way in giving them a chance at being successful on the road. Dare I even ask for a two score lead in the first quarter? Is that too much to request?
3. Turnovers please?
The last turnover the Saints have gotten was Keyunta Dawson's forced fumble and recovery by Corey White in Atlanta. That was four games ago. As good as the defense has been at times this year, really most of the season, the offense has been in a huge slump for a while now… especially on the road. With the Panthers' front seven so good, it's going to be impossible to run on them… not that the Saints can run on anybody but the Cowboys. And with it likely to rain a good bit, the passing game will be slowed down too. The Saints desperately need their defense to make plays to keep them in this.
4. Can the Saints slow down DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert?
The Saints' run defense is pretty much terrible. It has been all season. I don't expect them to shut down the Panthers' run game. But it needs to be slowed down enough to at least keep the game within striking distance. We can't have a repeat performance of Zac Stacy. That starts with a much better tackling effort than what we saw last week.
5. If the weather prevents effective passing, is the game over?
The Saints' supreme advantage over the Panthers, at least from what we saw last time, is that they can throw all day because the Panthers' back four is weak. But what if the Saints can't throw very well because of the rain? Then it's really bad news. The Panthers are awesome at running the ball, the Saints can't stop it, the Panthers are awesome at stopping the run, and the Saints can't run. You remove the passing game and there is virtually zero chance the Saints come out alive. Unless something crazy happens. Hopefully the weather will cooperate.