By Christian S. Kohl
Both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers sit tied atop the NFC South at 10-4. One of them will emerge as the winner of the conference in two weeks. The question is, who will secure the division title?
Week 17 presents easy match ups for both teams. New Orleans faces Tampa Bay at home, while Carolina draws Atlanta. Two teams battling for a potential two seed and first round bye absolutely have to secure those games. If either team falters that week, that will inevitably cost them the division. Because of that, this basically places all the emphasis on this week 16 match up when they square off against each other in Carolina.
New Orleans sports a 7-0 home record, and is only 3-4 on the road. This gives Carolina a far better chance to pull this one out against Brees and his high octane offense. Meanwhile, Carolina has suffered only one home loss in their initial contest against the powerhouse Seahawks. When it all comes down to one game, with Carolina on a good roll right now, things seem to favor the Panthers in this game.
However, in the battle of quarterbacks, Brees is far more battle tested in big games than Newton. Brees has a Super Bowl win to his credit along with many more years of regular season and playoff experience. The edge in the QB duel has to go to Brees despite the home field advantage of the Panthers.
This should be a hard fought game with two stout defenses. Mistakes will likely make the difference in this contest. One turnover could mean the ballgame. That, coupled with the fact that Brees sports a greater compliment of offensive weapons than Newton gives New Orleans a minor edge overall. Newton offers a far greater amount of mobility than Brees, but Graham, Colston, Moore, Ingram and even Stills can absolutely suffocate a team with points.
This contest is the chance for Carolina and Newton to take the next step. To be considered an elite team in the NFC rather than a young squad still experiencing infuriating growing pains at all the wrong times. The NFL creates extremely exciting situations based on absurdly limited samples, which is often unfair to how players and teams are judged. But it's that simple for Carolina. Win out and earn respect, or lose and endure even more eye rolls and critiques from fans and analysts.
Brees is such a ferocious competitor and elite playmaker, I think they are a slight favorite to come out ahead despite their road record. But Newton and company will bring everything they've got, and this game will likely come down to the final drive. Watch for one key play from Rob Ryan's defense to put enough heat on Newton to win this one at the buzzer. Whatever you do, enjoy it, because it will be a phenomenal battle between two of the very strongest teams the NFL has produced this year.
Christian S. Kohl is a sports contributor for CBS Local Digital Media.
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