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It’s a pretty straightforward scenario for the New Orleans Saints this week: win and they’ll not only clinch the NFC South, but also the conference’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
If they lose, the exact same circumstances will await the Carolina Panthers in Week 17.
After New Orleans’ latest road stumble, the second showdown in three weeks between the Saints and Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte will guarantee a playoff spot for the winner while likely dealing the loser a precarious path in the postseason.
New Orleans (10-4) took control of the South with a 31-13 rout of Carolina (10-4) at the Superdome on Dec. 8, but its margin for error took a massive hit a week later in St. Louis.
A Saints win over the Rams would have allowed them to stay in the driver’s seat even with a loss at Carolina due to a superior conference record. But after New Orleans committed three turnovers and fell behind by 24 points en route to a 27-16 loss — its fourth in five road games — this visit to Carolina may make or break its season.
Carolina will win the South and the conference’s second seed with a victory Sunday and a win at Atlanta or a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17. Should the Saints win, they’ll be able to rest some starters in their finale with the No. 2 seed locked up.
A loss could be especially damaging for the Panthers. Carolina could still clinch a playoff berth with losses by Arizona and San Francisco, but it also could find itself in trouble should it head to Week 17 tied with the 9-5 Cardinals due to its head-to-head loss.
Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers two weeks ago, bringing his totals at home to an NFC-best 23 TDs, an NFL-best 73.2 completion percentage and a 122.5 passer rating.
On the road, Brees completes just 63.4 percent for an average of 6.94 yards per attempt, nearly two fewer than at home, with an 86.3 QB rating and seven of his 10 interceptions.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the Saints average 32.9 points at the Superdome and 18.4 on the road — 27th in the league.