By Jason Keidel
In terms of competitive balance, the NFL has mutated much over the last 20 years. Indeed, in the era of free agency, a team’s fortunes can change with a single draft, or sometimes a single player.
The team with the league’s best record, the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles, didn’t even make the playoffs last year. And just about all the NFC’s playoff contenders were home last January. That includes the two that make this weekends juiciest matchup, when the Carolina Panthers (8-3) visit the New Orleans Saints (8-3), with the winner taking a one-game lead in the NFC South, perhaps the roughest division in pro football.
In a bounce-back season few saw coming, the Saints won eight straight after an 0-2 start, with the streak ended last Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. It’s not surprising that QB Drew Brees is still the face of the franchise, but with one rather adroit draft the Saints have done a football makeover. Their running game is now as good as any in the league, with Mark Ingram now joined by rookie RB Alvin Kamara, who is making defenses look silly and fantasy owners look brilliant.
New Orleans also fortified their long-lackluster defense by drafting CB Marshon Lattimore, a candidate for at least Defensive Rookie of the Year. They also landed a secondary stud by signing rookie free agent safety Marcus Williams. Now a team forever known for simply outscoring opponents can actually win games without short-circuiting the scoreboard. Perhaps one of the reasons they saw their winning streak snapped was the absence of Lattimore, who missed the game with an ankle injury, as well as fellow starter Ken Crawley (strained oblique).
But it’s hard to overstate the import or impact of Kamara, who gained 188 total yards against the Rams and went nuts two weeks ago during their surreal comeback against the Washington Redskins. Not only is Kamara a threat to run through defenses all day, he’s also a threat catching the ball out of the backfield. A perfect picture of balance, Kamara has gained 546 yards rushing and 548 receiving, along with nine touchdowns, putting him on pace to have one of the finest rookie seasons for a running back in NFL history.
Not surprisingly, the Saints have scored the fourth-most points in the league so far, with 322, just three behind the Patriots (325), and seven behind the Rams (329). Only the Eagles (351) have scored considerably more points.
The Panthers shouldn’t shock anyone by winning eight of their first 11 games, as they were 15-1 just two years ago and favored by a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Last year was the quintessential Super Bowl hangover. But this year the Panthers are playing much more like the team that rolled over the NFC in 2015, led, as always, by mercurial QB Cam Newton.
While some were surprised when Carolina dealt WR Kelvin Benjamin, they haven’t felt it in the standings, largely because Devin Funchess has filled the void left by Benjamin, and rookie RB Christian McCaffrey is playing up to his billing as a first-round draft pick. If they can get all-world TE and Newton’s safety blanket, Greg Olsen, back in the huddle, then they will be even more dangerous in December.
And they’re playing fine defense again. In the NFC, only the Eagles (191) and Vikings (195) have surrendered fewer points than the Panthers (207), who have also won four in a row, replacing the Saints as the hottest team in the division. Out of all 32 NFL clubs, only the Jacksonville Jaguars (281.8) have yielded fewer yards per game than the Panthers (288.3).
It’s a classic clash of strengths, with the Saints handing the ball to their two-headed rushing behemoth against the third-stingiest rushing defense in Carolina, who give up just 83.2 yards per game on the ground. Carolina is also looking for revenge — as well as evening out a tiebreaker — after getting drubbed by the Saints, 34-13, in Week 3.
And don’t look now, but the loser of this game will find themselves in second place, possibly sharing share it with last year’s NFC champs, the Atlanta Falcons. After toiling with the very hangover that crippled Carolina last year, the Falcons are finally walking straight, winning three straight and nudging their record to 7-4.
You could argue that if the Saints are victorious, giving them two wins over Carolina, then the Panthers will be relegated to the wild card race. If Carolina wins, then they will be a game up in the division and control their playoff path. That is, assuming Atlanta doesn’t crash the party. No matter who wins, you won’t find a better gridiron triumvirate in any NFL division. Or a better game this Sunday.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.