The first round of the 2017 NFL playoffs arrives this weekend, with one of the more interesting games going down in New Orleans between the Saints and the Carolina Panthers.
Drew Brees and company play host to their bitter NFC South rivals, as Cam Newton tries to lead the Panthers back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
That will be easier said than done, seeing as the Saints won both games (2-0) in this year’s season series and the Panthers have to go into the Superdome to get a win. Carolina owns a respectable 5-3 record on the road this year, but that pales in comparison to New Orleans’ staggering 7-1 mark at home.
This one undoubtedly favors the Saints on paper, while Vegas is giving New Orleans a full touchdown if you take the odds at BetOnline, among other NFL betting sites.
Does that mean the Saints are the easy call, or is there a better angle to take in this contest? Let’s take a closer look at this matchup to find out:
In a playoff atmosphere, I’m not messing with this Total. Vegas is just begging you to shoot for 49+ points in this one, which would suggest a fairly high-scoring affair.
It’s tough to know if fans will get that, as the first meeting this year was a 21-point thrashing by the hands of the Saints and did not top this Over.
The second meeting was closer to the shootout that the oddsmakers seem to be anticipating, but that game barely got there with Carolina tacking on an ultimately meaningless score late in the game.
There is enough offensive upside to consider the Over, but this just isn’t a bet I’m enamored with. Carolina’s defense (7th in total yardage allowed per game, 3rd against the run) is a huge reason why.
New Orleans had their way with the Panthers the first two times this year, but the Panthers excel against the run and that’s become the Saints’ identity. I do think New Orleans ends up enforcing their will in the end with this game at home, but it could take a while for that to come to fruition.
New Orleans can defend, as well. They’ve certainly limited Cam Newton (5 sacks, 3 interceptions, below 185 passing yards) across their two meetings.
The Saints did as they pleased in the first two meetings, but I think that’s a little harder to come by in such a big game. Taking down any team three times isn’t easy, either.
In addition, the Panthers do have some weapons here. New Orleans was not able to successfully track the speedy Christian McCaffrey (14 catches, 134 yards) at all this season and it makes sense that they’d have issues with him again. This is a talented young back that seems to still have some upside to his game, after all.
Carolina should hope so, as early down rusher Jonathan Stewart has been limited by a back ailment. He’s fully expected to suit up for this game, but if he’s ineffective or knocked out of this one, there will be a lot of pressure on the young rookie.
The main problem with the Panthers is their passing game. They do have McCaffrey with the short area game and tight end Greg Olsen is back, but since trading away red-zone monster Kelvin Benjamin, they just don’t have anyone that can consistently beat defenses.
Going up against stud corner Marshon Lattimore only complicates that, too. The Saints as a whole really turned themselves around defensively, and they enter this weekend as the league’s 10th best scoring defense.
New Orleans isn’t necessarily elite overall on defense, but they have been very aggressive and if they can get to Newton (7th in sacks), they could make this road trip a tough one for the Panthers.
On the other side, the Saints don’t rely on Drew Brees nearly as much as they used to. The 39-year old pocket maestro can still hit the deep ball and pick apart defenses, but an elite rushing attack and short area passing game is what drives New Orleans on offense these days.
That’s been a lethal combination against the Panthers, who allowed well over 100+ rushing yards both times they battled New Orleans. The Saints have a long, successful history on the ground in 2017, too, as they come into this huge divisional tilt with the NFL’s #5 overall rushing offense.
In theory, this is a matchup that absolutely favors the Saints. New Orleans is elite at home, they’ve learned to pace themselves and run the ball, they can still kill you with quick strikes down the field and an aggressive pass rush keeps their defense from being a liability.
All of that is true, but there’s something about the Panthers that is tough to quickly write off. In fact, the Panthers have actually produced an even better running game (4th in the league) this year, while they’re even better (3rd) at getting after the quarterback.
Tack on Carolina’s stingy run defense, the fact that this is the third meeting on the year and a high profile playoff game against a team they know extremely well, and I just don’t see a blowout here.
I’m not sure that’s the result Vegas is selling, but +7 is a bit too much for me to pass on the Panthers.
Cam Newton alone can will this team to grind-it-out wins and he’s had a ton of success against the Saints in the past. He helped this same team get to the league’s title game just two seasons ago and the Panthers didn’t go 11-5 and sneak into the playoffs by mistake.
This is still a very solid football team and they absolutely can keep this third meeting close.
If you’re looking for some magical, obvious edge with the ATS data, I don’t think you’ll find it. The Panthers were a solid 9-6-1 overall ATS this year (Saints were just 8-8), while they were pretty solid as road underdogs (3-2).
If anything, the edge would go to the Saints there (5-2 ATS as home favorites), but that doesn’t move the needle for me too much.
Picking the Saints straight up is still probably the right call, but I love the spread here for Carolina. This is just too much wiggle room for a game that could easily be decided by three points or fewer.
These rivals are both balanced and dangerous and simply know each other too well. New Orleans had the upper hand for the first two meetings, but don’t be shocked if they really have to work to oust the Panthers the third time around.