NFL: Panthers, Saints looking to end season with a win
Published 12:00 am Friday, January 6, 2023
By Brett Martel
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS — First-year Saints coach Dennis Allen appears to have earned himself a second season, thanks in part to his club’s current three-game winning streak.
Not that Allen sounds ready to exhale as New Orleans (7-9) prepares to host Carolina (6-10) in the season finale for both teams on Sunday.
The game holds no playoff implications. Just don’t tell either coach that it’s meaningless.
“Nothing’s meaningless,” Allen asserted. “All these things matter.”
When the Saints fell to 4-9 after blowing a late, 13-point lead in a pivotal loss at Tampa Bay a month ago, Allen asked his players to join him on a mission to win their last four games — regardless of the circumstances.
They responded first with a home victory over Atlanta, then won two games under more challenging circumstances.
First came the coldest game in Saints history (8 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff with wind gusts exceeding 20 mph) at Cleveland on Christmas Eve. New Orleans — a dome team from the South — clawed back from a 10-0 deficit to win 17-10. Next came a dominant defensive exhibition in a 20-10 triumph at NFC-leading Philadelphia.
The prospect of ending the season on a four-game winning streak is “big for our team,” Allen said.
Interim Panthers head coach Steve Wilks offered no indication that he’s inclined to turn the game into an audition for younger, less experienced players.
Like Allen, Wilks aims to go into an already uncertain offseason with another victory on his resume. He is 5-6 since taking over for the fired Matt Rhule and can get to .500 in what could be his final game with the Panthers if owner David Tepper decides to hire a new coach. Tepper already has floated the idea of trying to lure Jim Harbaugh back to the NFL from Michigan, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press.
When asked about his hopes for being retained, Wilks responded, “Right now my focus is just on winning the day.”
The Saints likely will have to revisit veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan’s contract after this season. A 2011 first-round draft pick, Jordan last week took over the franchise all-time lead in sacks with 115 1/2. He also leads the team in sacks this season with 8 1/2.
He is due nearly $14 million in base salary next season — a big salary-cap hit for a player turning 34.
The Panthers’ secondary has struggled without starters Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn. In a 30-24 loss to Tampa Bay last week, Carolina allowed Tom Brady to pass for 432 yards and three touchdowns to Mike Evans.
C.J. Henderson and Keith Taylor are expected to remain at cornerback, but veteran Josh Norman also could get snaps. Henderson, a former top-10 overall draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, gave up two of Evans’ TDs.
“We just weren’t on the same page on the back end, and we’ve got to communicate better,” Henderson said of the Evans TDs. “But yeah, coming into the game, that was my matchup.”
PLAYING FOR A JOB
While the Panthers ran for a franchise-record 320 yards two games ago against Detroit, they were forced to pass last week when the Bucs stuffed the box. Sam Darnold threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns, but had three turnovers — two on fumbles. That ended the fifth-year QB’s streak of four straight turnover-free games.
Darnold could be playing this week for his own future; he becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
“It doesn’t matter if it is a free-agent situation coming up,” Darnold said. “It’s all about when I get the opportunity to go out there and play football, I always want to play well.”
READY FOR MORE
Saints rookie offensive tackle Trevor Penning is hopeful he’ll have his highest snap count yet on Sunday.
Penning was the Saints’ second of two first-round picks last spring. He exhibited a high upside in training camp until a foot injury sidelined him for the first 11 games of this season.
Since his return, he’s played primarily as a “jumbo” blocking tight end in run-first formations. But if the Saints want him to compete for a starting role next season, now would be an opportune time to see how he handles more work at the regular tackle spot.
“To end your rookie year on a high note, that’s kind of what I’m looking for,” Penning said, adding that he aims to “learn some stuff about myself that I do good at, stuff I need to improve on in the offseason.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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CAROLINA (6-10) at NEW ORLEANS (7-9)
Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, Fox
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK NFL LINE: Saints by 3 1/2
AGAINST THE SPREAD: Panthers 8-8; Saints 7-9
SERIES RECORD: Saints lead 29-27
LAST MEETING: Panthers beat Saints 22-14 on Sept. 25 at Carolina.
LAST WEEK: Panthers lost to Buccaneers 30-24; Saints beat Eagles 20-10.
PANTHERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (27), RUSH (12), PASS (28), SCORING (18)
PANTHERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (22), RUSH (19), PASS (23), SCORING (22)
SAINTS OFFENSE: OVERALL (19), RUSH (19), PASS (16), SCORING (22).
SAINTS DEFENSE: OVERALL (10), RUSH (T21), PASS (3), SCORING (T12).
TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Panthers minus-3; Saints minus-12.
PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Sam Darnold threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns last week against Tampa Bay, but also turned the ball over three times, including twice on fumbles which led to 10 Buccaneers points. Those ended a personal streak of four games without a turnover. Darnold is 3-2 as a starter and is playing for his job in 2023, when he becomes a free agent.
SAINTS PLAYER TO WATCH: Undrafted rookie WR and KR-PR Rashid Shaheed has been increasingly involved in New Orleans’ passing game in recent weeks, with 75 or more yards receiving in three of his last four games. The speedster out of FCS program Weber State has 25 catches for 454 yards and touchdowns of 53 and 68 yards in 11 games this season. He also has rushed for a 44-yard touchdown. Among NFL receivers with at least 25 receptions this season, Shaheed ranks third in yards per catch at 18.2.
KEY MATCHUP: Saints QB Andy Dalton vs. the Panthers’ banged-up secondary. Carolina is without starting cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson, and gave up 432 yards and three long TDs passing to Tom Brady last week. Expect to see more of cornerback Josh Norman this week after Keith Taylor and C.J. Henderson struggled.
KEY INJURIES: The Panthers are unsure if they’ll have DT Matt Ioannidis (back) and placed CB Jaycee Horn (wrist) on injured reserve Monday after being eliminated from playoff contention. … Saints CB Paulson Adebo (hamstring) is not expected to play. S Marcus Maye (shoulder) missed practice time this week after missing last week’s game. Others missing at least some practice this week were offensive linemen James Hurst (foot) and Andrus Peat (ankle), as well as tight end Juwan Johnson (quadricep).
SERIES NOTES: The Panthers have won two of the past three but New Orleans won the last meeting in the Superdome on Jan. 2, 2022. … The Saints have a 14-12 record in the Superdome against the Panthers. Of 55 regular season meetings, 27 have been decided by eight or fewer points.
STATS AND STUFF: The Panthers are 1-6 away from home. … Interim head coach Steve Wilks is 5-6 since taking over for Matt Rhule, who was fired after Week 5. … Since being named the starter in Week 12, QB Sam Darnold’s 105.4 passer rating ranks third in the NFL behind Jared Goff (110.7) and Brock Purdy (106.4).. … The Panthers’ offense is 31st in third-down efficiency, converting at a rate of 29.8%. … WR D.J. Moore needs 122 yards receiving for his fourth straight 1,000-yard season. Moore has four TD catches in his last five games. … LB Frankie Luvu had a game and career-high 13 tackles with a sack vs. Tampa Bay, bringing him to a career-best 105 tackles and seven sacks this season. He joins Mark Fields (2002) as the only Carolina player with at least 100 tackles and at least seven sacks in a season. … DE Brian Burns has 12 1/2 sacks and needs three more to break the team’s single-season record shared by Kevin Greene and Greg Hardy. … DE Yetur Gross-Matos has blocked two field goals. … The Saints are trying to win their fourth straight and avoid their first 10-loss season since 2005 (3-13), when the regular season was one game shorter. … QB Andy Dalton needs 301 yards passing for his ninth-career 3,000-yard season. … RB Alvin Kamara has 1,278 scrimmage yards (791 rushing, 487 receiving) in 2022. He is the only player with at least 1,200 scrimmage yards in each of the past six seasons. Kamara has 429 career catches, third most by a running back in his first six seasons in NFL history. … WR Chris Olave ranks second among rookies in catches (67) and yards receiving (982). … Juwan Johnson ranks third among tight ends this season with a career-high seven TD catches. … DE Cameron Jordan had three sacks and a forced fumble last week, his sixth career game with at least three sacks. Jordan took over the Saints’ all-time lead in sacks with 115 1/2, surpassing the mark of Hall-of-Fame outside linebacker Rickey Jackson (115). Jordan is the sixth player since 1982 with at least seven sacks in 11 straight seasons. … LB Demario Davis has 101 tackles in 2022, his eighth career 100-tackle season. … DE Carl Granderson had 1 1/2 sacks in Week 17, giving him sacks in two straight games. … LB Kaden Ellis has a sack in two of his past three games. … CB Marshon Lattimore had his second career interception for a touchdown last week.
FANTASY TIP: Olave set career highs with nine catches for 147 yards against Carolina in Week 3 and has a chance to become just the third rookie in Saints history with 1,000 yards receiving, joining Marques Colston (2006) and Michael Thomas (2016).
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