If I'm New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, I don't do a lot of scoreboard watching Sunday. The Saints may ultimately be playing a meaningless game in terms of playoff seeding, but it's going to be very hard to tell with San Francisco and St. Louis playing at the same time.
The Saints need a win over Carolina (pretty likely) and a St. Louis upset of San Francisco (very unlikely) to get the No.2 playoff seed and a playoff bye. If I'm Payton, I don't even let anyone tell me the 49ers score until halftime. And I don't pull Drew Brees and company until the fourth quarter and maybe not at all, depending on what the 49ers are up to.
If the 49ers are up by 20 or more going into the fourth, though, I'd get Brees out of there no matter the score. He's too valuable to risk in that scenario, even if New England's Tom Brady does catch him for the single-season yardage record.
-- The Panthers have a chance Sunday if they run the ball well. Remember, they got a 69-yard DeAngelo Williams touchdown in the teams' first meeting (won 30-27 by New Orleans). The Superdome is a very difficult place to convert third downs consistently because of the noise level, but running the ball effectively is how coach John Fox often beat the Saints in Louisiana. The New Orleans defense, however, allowed only 35 yards rushing to Atlanta last week.
-- The Panthers' defense had quite a time trying to defend Jimmy Graham last time, as the tight end had eight catches for 129 yards. Graham does that against just about everyone, which is why the Saints decided Jeremy Shockey was expendable. You can bet Shockey will be involved in some sort of extra-curricular activity Sunday playing his former team.
-- The Panthers have a chance, but New Orleans has one of the best homefield advantages in the NFL and the hottest quarterback, too -- and I think Brees will play most of the game.
My prediction: New Orleans 34, Carolina 24.