Well, here we go again. Carolina and New Orleans were the class of the NFC South in 2013, and their two meetings both had huge playoff implications. Now they each sport a far worse record than they did that season, but Thursday night's game in Charlotte will determine who will lead the division going into November.
New Orleans put together its best game of the season Sunday night, dismantling Green Bay, 44-23. But that was at home, where the Saints are generally at least 14 points better than they are on the road.
Here's how the standings look at the top of the NFC South right now. Carolina's tie with Cincinnati actually puts it .009 ahead of the Saints, who have played one fewer game:
Carolina 3-4-1 .438
New Orleans 3-4-0 .429
If the Panthers win Thursday night, they will go to 4-4-1. New Orleans will be 3-5. But if Carolina loses, the Saints go to 4-4, Carolina is 3-5-1 and suddenly the late-season game in New Orleans (where the Saints are much tougher to beat) will become almost a must-win for Carolina. I don't like the Panthers' chances in the Bi Easy; far better to go ahead and win in Charlotte Thursday night and not let the Saints get running room in front of the division.
Carolina has already lost as many games as it did in all of the 2013 regular season, but it is not without hope. The 13-9 loss to Seattle Sunday featured a return to the defensive form of 2013 for the most part -- although it was another home-cooked heartbreak -- and the Panthers have a win against one division leader (6-2 Detroit) and a tie against another (Cincinnati).
But Drew Brees was hot Sunday night, and the Saints' defense intercepted Aaron Rodgers more in one game (twice) than he had been picked off all season coming in (just once). It should be a showdown.
Note to TV viewers: Thursday night's game can be seen locally on CBS affiliates. In the Charlotte area, our news partner WBTV (Channel 3) will carry the game.