Panthers vs. Saints Odds & Picks: Carolina Can Keep This NFC South Battle Close
Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Pictured: Drew Brees
Panthers vs. Saints
The Saints can clinch the top overall seed in the NFC with a win over the Panthers, a Packers loss and a Seahawks win. No matter what, though, the Saints are firmly entrenched as a contender and are gearing up for a long playoff run.
The Panthers, meanwhile, find themselves outside of the playoff picture and looking to play spoiler for their NFC South rivals.
Can the Saints finish the season strong and do their part to help lock down the top overall seed in the NFC?
New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ running back depth was completely shelled by COVID-19 fallout.
After Alvin Kamara tested positive on Friday, Latavius Murray and two other backs were deemed close contacts, joining Kamara on the reserve list.
Now Drew Brees will be without his top two weapons on Sunday with Kamara having been ruled out and wide receiver Michael Thomas on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
Luckily, the matchup should not present much of a challenge otherwise, as the Panthers come into this game with the 27th-ranked overall defense (53.2) and 25th-ranked coverage rating (47.1), per Pro Football Focus. Brees will have to rely heavily on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook in this one given the absences mentioned above.
Sanders has a strong individual matchup when lined up against projected primary defender Rasul Douglas. Per Pro Football Focus’ WR/CB Matchup chart, Sanders holds a sizable 24% advantage when lined up against him. Cook will also have an advantage against primary defender Shaq Thompson, who comes into Week 17 with a low 50.7 PFF coverage rating on the season.
Running backs Christian McCaffrey (quad) and Mike Davis (ankle) have both been ruled out for Sunday’s contest. Curtis Samuel, Rodney Smith, Alex Armah and special teamer Trenton Cannon will likely all see some time in the Panthers’ backfield in their absence.
Teddy Bridgewater will have a tough task on Sunday against the Saints’ fourth-ranked pass defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
He’ll also be playing without the benefit of his top two checkdown options in McCaffrey and Davis, which will make things even more difficult against a Saints team that also ranks eighth in the NFL with a 79.0 PFF pass rush rating.
He’ll need to be able to get the ball to his playmaking wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson quickly if the Panthers hope to keep up in this one. Moore, in particular, has a strong matchup when lined up against Saints top corner Marshon Lattimore, projected to be his primary defender. Moore holds a 21% advantage according to PFF and torched this same defense in Week 7 with a 4-93-2 line.
With fewer playmakers available for the Panthers this time around, however, count on the Saints to focus their efforts around containing Moore and Anderson on the outside.
The Saints have proven all season that they can get the job done in different ways. With the possibility of earning the top overall seed in the NFC playoffs on the line, I’m counting on them to do it again.
That said, a 5.5-point spread is large for a team that will be without their top playmakers. And while the Panthers are also short-handed, they’ve utilized their run-first approach and moved the ball well enough to keep their games close. In fact, over their last four games, the average final margin has been just 5.25 points.
Curtis Samuel has proven to be a capable runner out of the backfield, and I expect the Panthers to find creative ways to get him the ball in space again in this one. If they can execute and keep the clock rolling offensively, this game will be closer than the skill gap of the two rosters.
Sharp money agrees: Per our public betting data, while only 36% of tickets are on the Panthers to cover, an overwhelming 96% of the money is backing them as of writing. That represents a substantial 60% difference between the two. We’ve also seen multiple reverse line movements from sportsbooks that reinforce the same point — sharp money is on the Panthers.
I’m betting on the Panthers to keep this one close enough as they’ve done over the past month, and am comfortable betting them down to +5.
Pick: Panthers +5.5