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Thursday Night Breakdown: Saints, Panthers Play For NFC South Relevance

By Danny Cox

When the 2016 NFL season started, everyone sort of expected the defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers to be competitive, to easily return to the playoffs. Going into Week 11, they're 3-6, sitting in the NFC South cellar and already on the verge of missing the postseason.

The New Orleans Saints, who are 4-5 and tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for second place in the division, sit one game above the Panthers. Before the strange and heartbreaking loss to the Denver Broncos this past Sunday, the Saints had won four of their last five games, including a big 41-38 victory over the Panthers in Week 5.

That early-season showdown carried some importance, but nothing like this week's matchup on Thursday Night Football.

Issues With Carolina's O-Line

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are a shell of last year's dominant team. And one of the biggest problems is that the offensive line forgot how to protect him.

They don't deserve all of the blame, of course. The NFL regular-season MVP has been victimized by some pretty bad hits and missed calls. Newton met with NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, a couple weeks back to discuss "being treated the same across the board," according to Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

Newton has been sacked 23 times this season, while throwing for 1,994 yards and just 10 touchdowns. So regardless of who deserves what share of the blame, it's obvious that something needs to change.

Find more about this week's Thursday Night Football matchup.

Panthers Lack Running Game

The team's top rusher, Jonathan Stewart, has only 334 yards and four touchdowns this season. That's not enough, not even close. Their next leading rusher is... well, Cam Newton. Carolina's signal caller has rushed or scrambled for 261 yards and four touchdowns in 2016.

Carolina will need better offensive production to keep up with Drew Brees and the explosive Saints. Depending on how quickly the Saints put up points, a strong Panthers rushing game may not matter as much. Though should the Panthers jump out to an early lead, some semblance of a ground attack would definitely help control the clock and the game.

Saints' Turnover Troubles

Brees has multiple targets in Brandin Cooks, rookie Michael Thomas, Coby Fleener, Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead. The Saints are also starting to produce on the ground with the two-headed monster of Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower.

But turnovers have been their weakness. Against the Broncos, the Saints committed four, including two costly Thomas fumbles late in the game. What's otherwise been an impressive rookie season has been tainted by poor ball control when it mattered most.

The Panthers will surely go after the rookie and the football Thursday night. And the game may again hinge on his ability to hold on to it.

TNF Outlook

If the Saints can curb their turnovers, they should easily win on Thursday Night Football. This is not the same Saints defense that gave up 38 points to the Panthers earlier this season. The additions of then-injured Delvin Breaux and Sheldon Rankins will help contain Cam Newton, allowing Brees and the Saints offense to build a cushion.

Neither team has played up to expectations this season, but there's still a little time to get something going. It starts on Thursday.

If the Saints lose, their path to the playoffs narrows but doesn't close. If the Panthers lose, their season is basically over.

The Saints should take this game, given their recent performances, but they have to limit turnovers. If they can't, they will lose. Look for the Panthers to go after the ball any chance they get.

Prediction: New Orleans Saints 35 - Carolina Panthers 27

Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.

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