Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: Scouting report

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton clash when the Saints beat the Dolphins on Show caption
Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton clash when the Saints beat the Dolphins on "Monday Night Football" in September.

Top storyline: Saints, Panthers battle for South lead

Monday night’s game with the Seattle Seahawks was the biggest one of the season for the New Orleans Saints because the two teams were vying to take control in the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

After swinging and missing in that matchup, the Saints get to play their second-biggest game of the season with a lot on the line when they meet the streaking Carolina Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

When the season started three months ago, no one could have imagined NBC would flex this game from a noon start to a prime-time kickoff, but suddenly it’s “Must See TV” — a phrase coined by that network a couple of decades ago.

Why not?

The Saints are Panthers are tied atop the NFC South standings with 9-3 records, and Sunday night’s winner will have a virtual two-game lead in the race for the division title and a probable No. 2 seed for the playoffs — which carries an all-important first-round bye.

The matchup, the first of two in a span of 15 days (they meet again Dec. 22 in Charlotte), features two of the NFL’s best defenses: The Panthers rank second and the Saints eighth in fewest yards allowed.

They’re also very good in keeping their opponents off the scoreboard as the Panthers lead the league at 13.1 points per game, while the Saints are sixth in allowing 19.2 points per game — giving up 20 points or fewer in nine of 12 games so far.

The offenses aren’t bad, either. Not by a long shot.

So sit back and enjoy a little “Must See TV.”

About the Panthers

When the Saints played the Seahawks last week, Seattle went into the game with a six-game winning streak — which, as we all know, quickly turned into seven victories in a row.

The Panthers are even hotter, winning their past eight games following a 1-3 start. Some of them haven’t been close as they’ve claimed five of those wins by two touchdowns or more.

While the offense is sparked by Cam Newton, the second dual-threat quarterback the Saints will face in seven days, the Panthers defense has fueled the winning streak.

With 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly anchoring things at middle linebacker and defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy leading the pass rush, the Panthers have been solid.

They drew a lot of attention, of course, and people started taking them seriously in November — proving they were for real with back-to-back signature wins over the San Francisco 49ers (10-9) and New England Patriots (24-20), and adding two more since.

Key matchup: Saints’ front seven vs. Cam Newton

Last week, it was Russell Wilson.

This week, the name has changed. Yet the job remains the same for the Saints’ front seven: They must keep Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in check — as best they can, obviously — to have a chance.

Newton is bigger and stronger than Wilson, but he has the same kind of skills as a passer/runner. In 44 career games, Newton has thrown for 59 touchdowns and run for 28 — which means he’s been responsible for 87 TDs.

Here’s the problem for the Saints: Newton is averaging 282.5 total yards per game for his career — nearly 50 yards more a game than Wilson’s 236.6 average going into last week’s contest.

X factor: Saints ILB Curtis Lofton

The Saints have obviously gotten a lot of help from many contributors on defense this season, which explains why they have been in the league’s top 10 in fewest yards and points allowed this year.

One of their steadiest players has been inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, a tackling machine who will have to play a leading role in trying to contain Newton as well as running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

After leading the Saints with 157 tackles a year ago, Lofton has recorded a team-high 108 tackles so far — 19 more than fellow inside linebacker David Hawthorne — after collecting 12 stops in Monday night’s loss to the Seahawks.

A powerfully-built 6-foot, 241-pounder, Lofton rarely comes off the field. As such, he’ll likely be around the ball a lot again if the dangerous Newton and his twin running backs attempt to exploit the Saints’ run defense — or even when they try to swing passes out of the backfield.

Three and out

1 SHORT WEEKS: Saints coach Sean Payton has compiled a 10-7 overall record when playing with less than the usual full week to prepare. He’s 7-5 following Monday night games and 3-2 in Thursday or Saturday games after playing the previous Sunday.

2 FOUR GRAND: Despite throwing for just 147 yards last week, Drew Brees needs only 206 yards to reach 4,000 yards for the season — which would be his eighth in a row. Before him, the Saints never had a 4,000-yard passer in their first 39 seasons.

3 GOING DEEP: Panthers kicker Graham Gano, who connected on just 5 of 11 field-goal attempts from 50 yards out in his first four seasons, has been golden from that range this year. He’s 6-for-6 with made kicks of 50, 51, 52, 53 (twice) and 55 yards.