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NFL Preview - Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (7-8)



By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The last time the New Orleans Saints finished a season 8-8, they followed up with their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.

Nobody knows what the 2013 season has in store for the Saints, but they would like to build momentum by finishing this campaign at .500. They'll try to do just that with a third straight victory this Sunday against a Carolina Panthers squad looking to post its longest winning streak in four years.

The Saints reached double-digit win totals in each of their previous three campaigns following an 8-8 record in 2008. Of course, New Orleans followed up that campaign with a 13-3 regular season in '09 and marched all the way to a Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

New Orleans also won 13 games a season ago before getting bounced out of the playoffs, but then came an offseason that saw the franchise lose its head coach, Sean Payton, to a season-long suspension due to the well-publicized bounty scandal.

Without Payton, the Saints lost their first four games, including a 35-27 decision at Carolina on Sept. 16, but went on to win five of their next six to spark playoff hopes. However, New Orleans followed with three losses in a row to dash those dreams.

Still, the Saints are making a run at .500 thanks to a 41-0 home win over Tampa Bay on Dec. 16 followed with last weekend's 34-31 overtime triumph at the Dallas Cowboys.

New Orleans saw Dallas score 14 points in the final 3:35 of the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys failed to score in overtime and Garrett Hartley won it with a 20-yard field goal.

Drew Brees completed 37-of-53 pass attempts for 446 yards with three touchdown strikes. Marques Colston caught a season-high 10 passes for 153 yards, while Darren Sproles ran for 48 yards while also catching seven passes for 104 yards.

Mark Ingram ran for a touchdown, while wide receiver Lance Moore, running back Pierre Thomas and tight end David Thomas all caught touchdown passes.

"It's big for us," Ingram said of shooting for 8-8. "We had a rough year but everybody stayed working hard. Coming to work every day getting better and when we come out on Sunday we just try to put forth our best effort and that's what everybody's doing."

Linebacker Curtis Lofton forced and recovered a fumble for the Saints, while defensive linemen Tom Johnson and Junior Galette had sacks.

The Panthers are also hoping to finish the season strong and are on their first three-game winning streak since closing out the 2009 campaign with three victories in a row.

Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton survived a tough meeting with the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, winning 17-6 in a contest that saw six combined personal four calls.

Newton received one of those flags for arguing with official and he also made contract with referee Jerome Boger.

Newton's maturity has been questioned at times, but was very apologetic afterwards.

"I apologized to the referee. What I said was disrespectful," Newton said. "I apologized during the game but I would like to do so publicly. It was just in the heat of the moment. I apologize again so the next time we see him or the next time I see him we'll be on good terms."

Newton threw for 170 yards with a touchdown pass to Steve Smith and also ran for a score. Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly had nine tackles and an interception that helped set up a score.

Carolina outgained Oakland 271-189 and is trying to win four straight for the first time since Oct. 19-Nov. 16, 2008.

The Panthers will also try to sweep their season series with the Saints for the first time since 2008. They racked up 219 yards rushing and three scores on the ground in the earlier win over the Saints.

Brees threw for 325 yards with a TD pass and ran for a score, but was also picked off twice.

The win snapped Carolina's four-game slide to New Orleans.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Sunday will mark the end of what has been an emotional roller coaster for the Saints.

Credit goes to assistant coach Joe Vitt, who filled in for Payton as interim head coach after serving his own six-game ban to start the season. Vitt will walk off the field with his head high and an unknown future with Payton expected back in 2013.

"I'm not thinking about that now," said Vitt. "We've have our mind on one thing and that's winning this football game. We have no long-term strategic plans from a coaching standpoint. That's for another day at another time."

Brees will also wrap another excellent season and is staring at a number of possible accolades.

He leads the NFL with 4,781 passing yards and 39 touchdown passes and set a new NFL record by completing 20-plus passes in 51 straight games. Brees is also the first player in NFL history to reach 4,500 passing yards in three straight seasons and has a shot of becoming the first player to have consecutive campaigns of 5,000 yards passing.

Brees is also one touchdown pass shy of joining Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to have two seasons with 40 or more touchdowns.

One of Brees' biggest strengths is his ability to spread the ball and the 2012 version of the Saints is just the second team in league history to have four players with at least 60 catches on the season. They join the 1990 Houston Oilers.

Brees will keep his eye this weekend on Kuechly, who is making a case for Rookie of the Year honors.

The ninth overall pick of the 2012 draft out of Boston College, Kuechly leads the Panthers with 151 tackles and grabbed his second career interception last time out.

Kuechly has helped Carolina post the eighth-ranked defense in the league and the club is giving up the fourth-fewest yards per game (301.2) since Week 5.

"We're just trying to make sure we point him in the right direction now," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He is a heck of a football player and we will continue to coach him up, because believe it or not I think Luke Kuechly could be a better football player. I really do. He has that kind of ability. He is special."

Newton is also a special player and continues to grow in the NFL. He has passed for 11 touchdowns in his past six games and the only interception in that span came last weekend and ended a string of 176 straight attempts without a pick.

His 7,672 passing yards are 202 shy of Peyton Manning for the most over the first two seasons of a career.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The season may end for the Saints and Panthers this Sunday, but both know how important it is to finish strong. Just see 2008 for New Orleans.

"I think how we finish the season, how we start the parameters and how we start our offseason affects everything that you do during the season," said Vitt. "What you do in the offseason has a direct correlation to what you do during the season. I think that we've been able to build the past couple of weeks on the character that we have in the locker room."

That is something the Panthers would like to emulate as they try to build a winning foundation in Carolina.

"I can tell you this, if we want to be the team we know we can be, a playoff contender, it's going to have to come down to winning games in November and winning games in December," declared Newton. "You see the great teams and they do it all the time. We just want to get that in our pedigree moving forward."

While the Panthers were able to record a home win earlier this season, the Saints put a 45-17 hurting on the Panthers at home a season ago. Brees threw five touchdown passes, including two to Colston and one to Sproles, while Newton was limited to 158 yards passing and 32 on the ground.

No reason for the Saints to take the foot off the gas this weekend.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Panthers 24

12/27 13:26:34 ET

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Scoreboard
Local
Final
CAR 4
TOR 1
Final
DUKE 66
UCONN 56
7:00pm Tonight
PHI
CHA
 
Final
CHI 103
NYK 97
Final
HOU 90
NOP 99
Final
SAC 107
MIL 108
Final
GSW 114
OKC 109
7:00pm Tonight
PHI
CHA
 
7:00pm Tonight
ORL
UTA
 
7:30pm Tonight
CLE
BRK
 
7:30pm Tonight
BOS
MIN
 
7:30pm Tonight
DET
TOR
 
7:30pm Tonight
MIA
WAS
 
8:00pm Tonight
MEM
CHI
 
8:00pm Tonight
SAN
POR
 
9:00pm Tonight
DEN
LAC
 
10:30pm Tonight
LAL
OKC
 
Final
RICE 72
STTHOMASTX 61
 
Final
UVA 70
CLST 54
Final
LIU 69
FIU 58
 
Final
STET 67
GSOUT 76
 
Final
QUIN 80
LEH 65
 
Final
SFLA 69
SHU 89
Final
RICH 65
SALA 54
Final
CAN 60
USB 59
 
Final
DEL 62
TEMPL 82
Final
WCU 56
WRST 69
 
Final
VERM 56
YALE 57
 
Final
SDKST 75
IDST 72
 
Final
RIDE 62
MRGST 48
 
Final
LATU 79
NICST 54
 
Final
CHAR 75
APP 65
Final
MISS 71
CCAR 68
 
Final
DUKE 66
UCONN 56
Final
BRAD 80
EUREK 38
 
Final
PEAY 76
OAKC 52
 
Final
JST 66
SMISS 46
 
Final
SD 55
MNTST 53
 
Final
UAB 70
LSU 79
Final
EVAN 81
OHIO 69
 
Final
CSFU 72
CSDH 50
 
Final
ORST 90
DEP 59
Final
PAC 69
NEV 65
Final
USF 77
PORST 40
 
Final
IDAHO 86
WALLA 39
 
Final
UTST 57
CALST 56
 
1:30pm Today
YOUNG
WILB
 
2:00pm Today
TULA
JST
 
6:00pm Tonight
RAD
SIENA
 
7:00pm Tonight
MERC
COOK
 
7:00pm Tonight
BUCK
CASEWEST
 
7:00pm Tonight
LIB
CPNC
 
7:00pm Tonight
SCAR
CLEM
 
7:00pm Tonight
CMICH
CONC
 
7:00pm Tonight
MIAMI
EKENT
 
7:00pm Tonight
GWEBB
HIWASSEE
 
7:00pm Tonight
ODU
MDES
 
7:00pm Tonight
BUF
NIAG
 
7:00pm Tonight
KSU
NCAT
 
7:00pm Tonight
FAM
UNF
 
7:00pm Tonight
NORST
NARZ
 
7:00pm Tonight
DART
NILL
 
7:00pm Tonight
MORE
NKENTUCKY
 
7:00pm Tonight
UCSB
SDCHR
 
7:00pm Tonight
STJ
GAELS
 
7:00pm Tonight
ALA
STILL
 
7:00pm Tonight
HAMP
TENST
 
7:00pm Tonight
TENN
TENT
 
7:00pm Tonight
WMARY
WSHMD
 
7:30pm Tonight
FLGC
FUR
 
7:30pm Tonight
CALST
SDKST
 
8:00pm Tonight
MTST
CHAT
 
8:00pm Tonight
NDAK
DICKINSON
 
8:00pm Tonight
LAMON
LSUALEX
 
8:00pm Tonight
PRIN
LIP
 
8:00pm Tonight
LAM
MLGN
 
8:00pm Tonight
MINN
SEAT
 
8:00pm Tonight
LOYC
SUTAH
 
8:00pm Tonight
SELA
WINT
 
8:05pm Tonight
SILL
NO
 
9:00pm Tonight
MARQ
ALAAM
 
9:00pm Tonight
TTU
ARKPB
 
9:00pm Tonight
DEN
COLST
 
9:00pm Tonight
CREI
TXPA
 
10:00pm Tonight
CAL
EWASH
 
10:05pm Tonight
UTST
IDST
 
11:00pm Tonight
UTEP
ARZ
 
11:59pm Tonight
CHAM
HAW
 
Final
PIT 1
COL 0
Final
PHI 1
FLA 2
Final
CAR 4
TOR 1
Final
CLB 4
WAS 5
Final
MON 1
ANA 2
Final
SJS 4
EDM 3
Final
LOS 6
STL 4
7:00pm Tonight
NJD
TAM
 
7:30pm Tonight
OTT
ANA
 
7:30pm Tonight
DET
NYI
 
8:00pm Tonight
WIN
BOS
 
9:00pm Tonight
CAL
DAL
 
Final
JAC 21
TEN 13