SERIES HISTORY: 48th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 24-23. The Saints won 12-9 on Dec. 17 in Charlotte. New Orleans goes for a season sweep in back-to-back seasons after winning three times last season, including the lone postseason meeting.
KEYS TO THE GAME: For New Orleans, it's simple: don't get anyone hurt. Of course, no game plan can protect players from injury, but the point is to get through this game as healthy as possible. Along the way, the Saints would like to regain the offensive balance that has been missing lately, but a series of injuries on the offensive line and the likelihood of limiting snaps for key skill players will make that challenging. Teddy Bridgewater will start at quarterback with Drew Brees staying on the sideline. Similarly, the defense hopes to sharpen its edges by defending the pass better than it did last week, which should be realistic against this offense with Kyle Allen making his first career start at quarterback.
Carolina will have to scale back the playbook for the second week in a row for a quarterback with barely any NFL experience. With Allen drawing the start in place of the injured Cam Newton and Taylor Heinicke, the Panthers don't have a lot to draw on. The problem is they don't want to put too much on second-year running back Christian McCaffrey, who has had a strong season but might be wearing down by this point.
The defense hasn't been nearly as strong consistently as the Panthers would like. They're not likely to face a full dose of the Saints offense in terms of personnel or play-calling, so that means this should be a chance for Carolina's defense to take control in certain aspects if the unit is at all engaged. Expect they would like nothing more than to free up veterans Julius Peppers and Thomas Davis for a big play or two in what could be the final game of their careers.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
--OUT: QB Cam Newton (right shoulder), DT Kawann Short (calf), G Trai Turner (ankle)
--QUESTIONABLE: T Marshall Newhouse (hip)
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
--OUT: T Terron Armstead (pectoral), T/G Jermon Bushrod (hamstring), G Larry Warford (knee)
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Saints LBs vs. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey. This, of course, assumes McCaffrey plays in a game that has no meaning for either team. This was a key matchup in the first meeting and it becomes even more important in the absence of Cam Newton. The Saints did a good job of containing McCaffrey in the first game. He ran 15 times for 53 yards and caught eight passes for 67 yards, though he did throw a 50-yard halfback pass for Carolina's only touchdown. With Cam Newton sidelined, New Orleans will be even more focused on taking away McCaffrey and it will be even more challenging for the Panthers to get him free for big plays.
--Panthers CBs James Bradberry and Captain Munnerlyn vs. Saints WR Ted Ginn Jr. Bradberry's best season will end this weekend, so he'll want something positive to take to the offseason, while Munnerlyn will want to prove that he's worth bringing back for another season. Ginn is a former Panther who was activated from injured reserve since the teams met for the first time this season less than two weeks ago. So for Ginn, this figures to be an important outing as he tries to return to rhythm, particularly knowing the Saints will begin the postseason with a bye.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers CB Donte Jackson. The rookie wraps up a strong first season when the Panthers go to New Orleans. That's not far from where he played collegiately for LSU. Jackson has shown an emotional streak in recent games and it appears the losses are weighing on him.
FAST FACTS: PANTHERS QB KYLE ALLEN (rookie) is expected to make 1st-career start in Week 17. ... RB CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY had 120 scrimmage yards (53 rush, 67 rec.) & 50-yard TD pass in last meeting & became 1st player since 1985 with 50+ rush yards, 50+ rec. yards & 50+ pass yards in single game. Leads NFL RBs with 106 receptions, most by RB in single season in NFL history. Joined HOFer LA DAINIAN TOMLINSON (2003) & MATT FORTE (2014) as only players in NFL history with 1,000+ rush yards (1,080) & 100+ receptions (106) in single season. ... WR D.J. MOORE ranks 2nd among NFL rookies with 707 rec. yards. ... Rookie TE IAN THOMAS had 48 rec. yards & 1st-career TD last week. ... LB LUKE KUECHLY had 13 tackles, 2 TFL & PD in Week 15 meeting. Aims for his 6th in row vs. NO with 8+ tackles. ... CB JAMES BRADBERRY had INT & FF in last meeting, his 2nd-career game with both INT & FF. ... SAINTS QB DREW BREES leads NFL in comp. pct. (74.4) & rating (115.7) this season. In his past 3 at home vs. Car., has 1,016 pass yards (338.7 per game) with 8 TDs vs. 2 INTs for 106 rating. ... RB ALVIN KAMARA had 105 scrimmage yards (82 rec., 23 rush) & 2 rush TDs last week. Had 103 scrimmage yards (67 rush, 36 rec.) & rush TD in Week 15 meeting. ... RB MARK INGRAM II has 761 scrimmage yards (84.6 per game) & 5 rush TDs in his past 9 meetings. ... WR MICHAEL THOMAS leads NFL in receptions (120) & ranks 7th in rec. yards (1,376) in 2018. ... DE CAMERON JORDAN has 6.5 sacks in his past 6 at home vs. NFC South. ... LB DEMARIO DAVIS led team with 8 tackles & had sack in last meeting. ... DT SHELDON RANKINS had FF in Week 16. Has career-high 8 sacks this season.
PREDICTION: The Saints will rest their best players and have no incentive to play, but will it matter against Carolina and undrafted rookie quarterback Kyle Allen? We think not.
OUR PICK: Saints, 23-20