Thursday night has another very interesting divisional matchup as the Saints hit the road to take on the Panthers. In a wide open NFC South, the winner of this game would hold first place heading into next week. With the NFC loaded with talented teams, winning the division at this time looks like the only way either of these teams could make the playoffs. Not only that, but they would host a game based off winning their division. Both of these teams have playoff pedigree, so despite the records, either team could make noise in January.
The Saints looked like what everyone thought they would heading into the season this past Sunday. Coming off a 44-23 blowout win against the Packers, the Saints offense appeared to fully click. Drew Brees was hitting all of his weapons and with the pin point accuracy that we are accustomed to. While Brees isn’t as productive away from the Superdome, he should still have a nice day against a reeling Panthers secondary. Another big factor for the Saints last week was the return of Mark Ingram. Ingram came back in a huge way with 172 yards rushing and a touchdown. He should have another nice day against a defense allowing 135 yards per game on the ground.
Despite his shoulder injury, Jimmy Graham is still the number one option in the passing game. Last week he fought through it for 59 yards and a touchdown. While the injury should linger the rest of the year, Graham will become more accustomed to playing with it. Look for him to continue to find openings against a Panthers defense he’s had success against. Rookie Brandin Cooks has caught most of his passes around the line of scrimmage, but showed last week he can beat defenders over the top. With his open field ability, Brees will probably be looking his way often.
Marques Colston can still get it done when called upon, but there are a lot of mouths to feed in this offense. Colston will have his chances and would see his targets rise if Graham had any setbacks. Another option to watch is Kenny Stills. Stills has the ability to do more, but is essentially in the Devery Henderson role at this time. Against a struggling secondary, it wouldn’t be surprising if he reeled off a couple huge plays.
While he has limited his running this season, Cam Newton has made many strides this year as a pocket passer. It’s even more impressive when you factor in the somewhat limited supporting cast. DeAngelo Williams will be returning from injury this week so it is uncertain how he will be used in the run game. Jonathan Stewart should also see carries as he was very efficient last week against the Seahawks. From a fantasy football perspective, this is a situation to avoid. The number one option in the passing game is rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Considering he has been plagued by drops which was an issue coming out of Florida State, it’s scary to think what Benjamin’s numbers could be. At 6’5 240, Benjamin has shown the ability to beat defenders in various ways whether it’s deep, over the middle or in the short passing game. He should see a heavy dosage of targets tonight.
Tight end Greg Olsen is Newton’s most reliable target, and is quietly on pace for 1,000 yards. The Saints have limited tight ends up to this point, but Olsen should continue his streak of productivity. Against a struggling Saints secondary, Jerricho Cotchery could even be in line for a decent game. If the defense rolls more coverage over to Benjamin or Olsen, Cotchery will face matchups that he can still win.
Of all the Thursday night games, this one is the toughest to pick for me. The Saints are coming off a huge win and their defense has improved in recent weeks. However, they’re 0-4 on the road which is scary to consider. Despite that, I will still be picking them this week. If the offense builds off last week, Brees and company should be able to move the ball relatively easy. I’m also worried Newton and the Panthers don’t have the personnel to keep up if this game turns into a shootout. My prediction is Saints 27 Panthers (+2.5) 23.