Quick read: Saints at Panthers

Top storyline: Stakes high again for Saints, Panthers

Here we go again.

With a wasted opportunity to earn a postseason berth in the rearview mirror, the New Orleans Saints will give it another try Sunday in an NFC South showdown with the Carolina Panthers.

Despite their disappointing loss to the St. Louis Rams last week, the Saints still have everything in front of them. In fact, the Saints have a chance to achieve two of their season-long goals at the same time when they get together with the Panthers for the second time in 15 days.

If the Saints win, they’ll clinch the division title for the fourth time in Sean Payton’s seven years as coach and — here’s the best part — lock up the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs. A Panthers win would clinch a playoff spot and give them at least a share of the division title with one game left in the regular season.

So there’s much at stake, just like there was when the Saints claimed a 31-13 victory against the Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 8.

This time, the game’s at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., where the Panthers are 6-1 with the only loss coming in the season opener to the Seattle Seahawks.

Things are pretty much the same as they were for the first meeting between the Saints and Panthers.

They were tied for the division lead after the Saints were pummeled by the Seahawks, but they rebounded nicely to whip the Panthers and snap their eight-game winning streak.

While that one was important, this one’s bigger — like a playoff game before the playoffs.

About the Panthers

Little has changed for the Panthers since they encountered the Saints on Dec. 8.

Even though they left that night with a bitter taste in their mouths after taking a 31-13 beating, the Panthers are well-positioned to clinch a playoff berth — and possibly the NFC South title next week — with a victory.

There’s reason for the optimism. Despite the disappointing loss to the Saints, the Panthers remain one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

After starting 1-3, they began an impressive turnaround with eight victories in a row. The streak ended with the loss to the Saints two weeks ago, but they got back on track last week by crushing the New York Jets — giving them nine wins in 10 games.

While they were doing that, the Saints were giving up their slim edge in the division with a loss to the St. Louis Rams.

So the Panthers are where they want to be going into the final two games — with a chance to earn a playoff berth and possibly a lot more than that.

Key matchup: Terron Armstead vs. Greg Hardy

With his team trying to nail down a division title and No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs, Sean Payton made the risky move of benching left tackle Charles Brown.

Maybe this wouldn’t have been as big of a deal in Week 3 or even Week 8, but in Week 16 it shows how terribly important the position is.

Even though Armstead is a rookie who hasn’t played a single down on offense in the NFL, Payton is showing that he has a lot of confidence in his third-round pick to keep Drew Brees clean.

If Armstead can get the job done against Hardy, who has 26 sacks in just four seasons (including 11 last year and eight this season), it’ll be a big boost for the Saints in the postseason.

X factor: Saints’ physical receivers

After a couple of quiet weeks, Saints wide receiver Marques Colston had a huge night against the Panthers in the first meeting two weeks ago with nine receptions for 125 yards and two scores.

Tight end Jimmy Graham didn’t finish with as many yards, but he also had a pair of touchdown receptions as the Panthers had their hands full with the physicality of the Saints’ biggest receivers.

Time and again, the Panthers defenders on the back end proved they didn’t have the muscle to keep either the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Colston or 6-7, 265-pound Graham in check. That could be a key again for the Saints, who are still having trouble running the ball.

If Colston and Graham again have their way with the Panthers linebackers and defensive backs like they did Dec. 8, when Brees threw for 313 yards and four TDs while completing 71.0 percent of his passes, it would go a long way toward helping the Saints control the ball again — like they did that night in producing five scoring drives of between 58 and 86 yards.

Three and out

1. STARTING STRONGER: The Saints want to get off to a fast start after being blanked in the first quarter of their Dec. 8 game. But the Panthers defense has done that to a lot of teams — nine shutouts in the opening quarter and just one touchdown allowed in 14 games.

2. CLOSE CALLS: The Panthers and Saints will be playing for the 38th time, with Carolina holding a 19-18 edge in the series between the divisional foes. It has been just as close on the scoreboard, too: The Panthers have 783 points compared to 776 for the Saints.

3. A STIFF BREES: Drew Brees has been especially tough on the Panthers since signing with the Saints in 2006. In 14 outings against Carolina, he has thrown for 300 yards eight times — topping 350 on four occasions. In those eight 300-yard games, he has 21 TD passes.