NFC South Update: A Two Horse Race

With the Atlanta Falcons on a bye and trying to cling to playoff life and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers all but eliminated from postseason contention and shipping off players via trade, the Carolina Panthers hosted the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football for sole possession of first place in the NFC South. There’s no doubt that the South has become a two horse race with the other two teams just trying to earn respectability as they already begin making moves for the 2015 season.

It was a battle of talented signal callers versus underachieving defenses and when the night was finished, the Saints earned a 28-10 road victory (the first of the season) and the Panthers earned a lot of questions about their team.
Quarterback Drew Brees seems to have elevated his play since the return of his favorite target height in Jimmy Graham. Brees had a very efficient day completing 24 of his 34 pass attempts for 297 yards. He ran for a touchdown and threw another one to his security blanket Graham. In addition to that touchdown grab Graham hauled in seven receptions for 89 yards.
Another reason for the Saints’ elevated level of play has been the running of Mark Ingram. In the Saints 44-23 beat down of the Packers last week the former Heisman Trophy winner ran for 172 yards and a touchdown. He followed that up with another good performance. On Thursday Ingram carry the ball 30 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Since returning from a hand injury, Ingram has looked like a number one back and worthy of the first round draft pick the Saints used on him in 2011. The back to back wins leaves New Orleans at 4-4 with the arrow clearly pointed in the up direction.
The Panthers and especially quarterback Cam Newton had a much more difficult and frustrating Thursday night. The Panthers were hoping to get back on track after losing last week to the Seattle Seahawks. However, the defense did very little to shut down the New Orleans offense and Newton was wildly inconsistent all night and looked uncomfortable in the pocket. Newton finished the game 10 for 28 for 151 yards and an interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 43 yards and a touchdown.
Newton constantly overthrew receivers especially rookie Kelvin Benjamin who he routinely missed in clutch situations despite his 6’5″ stature. Because of this the offense never found consistency and were never able to get into a rhythm. Outside of Newton the running game was limited again. D’Angelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 66 yards on 16 carries.

Both Williams and Stewart have been banged up all season and neither have been able to get on track this year. it’s been one of the major differences from last year. Another major difference is the inconsistent to mediocre play of the defense. They have not created as much pressure as they did last season. They have also failed to turn teams over this season. That extra time on the field has produced negative results for Carolina this season.
The Saints seem to have things moving in the right direction. The defense has stabilized while they are not paying to the level established last season, they are becoming more consistent which is allowing their playmakers to be effective. The success of the running game has allowed the offensive line to be more consistent in pass protection. Brees is one again receiving contributions from multiple receivers including their rookie burner Brandon Cooks.
The Panthers seem in disarray. The foundation of the problem stems from a lack of talent on the offensive line. They have started 4 undrafted players on their offensive line this season which begs the question; where is the dedication to protecting their investment at quarterback? It’s probably the same place their dedication to surrounding him with quality weapons is.

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