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Saturday, December 7, 2013

NFL Preview 2013 Week 14: Panthers vs Saints

Carolina Panthers vs New Orleans Saints

Market Watch

If you want to know how much respect the Carolina Panthers are getting in the betting markets, look no further than the evolution of this point spread.

A week ago in the LVH look-ahead line, the Saints were -4.5 point favorites for this prime-time game.  On Sunday, the Panthers not only beat the Buccaneers, but they comfortably covered the -7 point spread.  As a result, Las Vegas reopened this game at -4 on Sunday night.

After the Saints got spanked by the Seahawks on MNF, this line moved to -3.5, and since then we've seen a move all the way down to -3.

Now that might not sound like a lot, but there are two important variables to take note of.

First, the Saints are widely regarded as having the second best home field advantage, so anytime they play at home you must grant them at least four points on the line. Second, '3' is a key number, so any move on or off that number is something that should get our attention.

The question we face is whether or not -3 offers any value for either team.

So far, 63 percent of the bets are coming in on the Saints.

Keep an eye on

If you like the Panthers in this game, there are three key reasons supporting your position.

First, the team is on a roll and playing with confidence.  That might be obvious analysis, but it wasn't too long ago that this team was in disarray. Carolina had a poor October and questions were being asked.

Is Cam Newton really a franchise quarterback?  Will Ron Rivera ever win a close game, or even be the coach by the end of the season? Was Mike Shula's offensive scheme going to work in this league?  Could anybody in the secondary cover a receiver?

These were all legitimate questions, but many also expected the Panthers to rebound this year. Football Outsiders predicted that they would be the most improved team in 2013. As it stands now, it certainly looks like they've exceeded expectations and answered all the questions.

Another reason why they look good in this matchup is their play in the red zone on both sides of the ball. They were already good in this area before, but over the last few weeks they've continued to trend upwards in both categories. Conversely, the Saints have only been average at converting red zone chances into touchdowns, and below average keeping opponents out of the end zone.

Finally, the Panthers are an elite running team. Cam Newton has made a lot of huge plays with his legs, so New Orleans will have to find a scheme to limit the damage, whether that's committing a spy, running more stunts, or rushing up field with contain in mind.

The Saints have done a great job at turning around their defense this season, but stopping the run hasn't been one of their strengths.  Some of this is due to the fact that they usually play with a lead, which allows them to attack the quarterback and focus on defending the pass, but they have yet to show they can clamp down on a run-first team.

The good news for the Saints is DeAngelo Williams is out with an injury, and Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert are also banged up.

When Drew Brees has the ball, he'll be lining up against a defense that doesn't have any statistical weaknesses (on paper).  The Panthers rank near the top of the NFL in every meaningful category (rush/pass defense, drive disruption, third down, red zone, sack rate, and turnover differential).

In many ways, the Panthers have a lot of similarities to the Seahawks, and that's enough reason for any Saints fan to shift uncomfortably in their seat.

Bottom Line

With everything pointing towards the Panthers, they seem like the right side in this game. However, as most football fans know, betting against New Orleans at home is never a good idea.

We could easily see a situation where Brees comes out on fire and gives his defense a 10 or 14 point lead.  If the Panthers have one weakness on offense, it's their offensive line. Granted, all the sacks Carolina give up are not on the guys up front, because Cam is a QB who likes to hold the ball and make things happen.  But the noise in the Superdome is no joke and the Saints have the ability to pressure the QB.

Ultimately, I could see a good case made for either team. Sooner or later the Panthers are going to lose a game, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if it happened in New Orleans.  At the same time, if a team is going to go into New Orleans and put up a 'W', the streaking Panthers are a great candidate to get it done.

I'll be taking a pass in this one.

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