The New Orleans Saints have now won three in a row, however, they have been eliminated from playoff contention after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came from behind to defeat the Carolina Panthers and the Minnesota Vikings were crushed by the Green Bay Packers. Those Panthers will end their season in the Caesars Superdome this Sunday when they play the Black and Gold. Here are five things to look out for:
1) WHO GETS PLAYING TIME:
We all know even though the Saints have won their last three games, they are still eliminated from the playoffs. In this week 18 matchup could we see Dennis Allen and the coaching staff treat this game like how some college programs treat bowl games? For example, rookie offensive tackle Trevor Penning has been back for a little while now and has played in some games. The thing is though, he’s really only come into the games as a jumbo tight end to act as an extra offensive lineman. You already know what you have in James Hurst, who will be under contract in 2023 anyway. Starting Trevor Penning at left tackle and giving Eno Benjamin more snaps at running back would be meaningful reps for their development and to see what you will be working with for next season. Not to mention to see how much of a priority it will be in the offseason to address certain positions.
2) TEAM’S ATTITUDE TO SEASON-ENDING:
In this game against the Panthers on Sunday, some wonder what their attitude and feelings will be knowing this is their last game. We’ve seen them fight and never give up this season so it doesn’t seem very likely that New Orleans will take this game lightly. They will want to get their revenge from when they lost to Carolina in week three and not only do the Saints want to end the season on a win, but this is a divisional matchup that always matters to a team and the Saints want to stay they went 4-0 their final four games instead of winning three out of their last four.
3) HOW WILL PLAYERS PLAY:
Damar Hamlin’s injury from Monday night has had the NFL and the sports world shaken to its core. We’ve gotten reports that Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins hasn’t been in the right head space and some speculate he may play in week 18. Now, this was about the player that was directly in the play that injured Hamlin but that doesn’t mean players from other teams won’t still be affected. Defenders may be too afraid to go for a big hit or tackle anyone at all. It may take a quarter or two or maybe even a single drive, but in that time you may see a lot of broken and attempted tackles because of the fear in the back of the mind of defensive players.
4) DIFFERENCE IN THE PANTHERS:
There have been some big changes in Carolina’s squad since that first matchup earlier in the season. They went from starting Baker Mayfield, who was released and is now on the Rams to going back to Sam Darnold. They fired their head coach Matt Rhule and made their interim coach Steve Wilkes, and traded star running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers. Even with all of these moving parts, the Panthers won four out of their last six before they fell apart in last week’s matchup versus the Bucs. The team has responded well to the coaching change and even though they have no shot of getting into the tournament, they still want to win this game coming up as much as the Black and Gold.
5) VETS WITH CONTRACTS:
It’s sort of the same thing I alluded to earlier with the young players and getting them meaningful playing time in this game. There will be some players who have clauses in their contracts that state if they reach a certain milestone in a statistic, they will get a bonus. Others are simply fighting to prove they deserve to come back and renew their deal. Some players to note that have expiring contracts are Marcus Davenport, Andy Dalton, Tre’Quan Smith, and David Onyemata just to name a few on the Saints. For the Panthers, Sam Darnold and D’Onta Foreman are a couple of players that will be looking to show either Carolina or other teams what they have to offer. So expect a few of these names to stand out in this NFC South divisional matchup.
Kickoff is scheduled for Sunday, January 8th at 12:00 p.m.