When you play as well as the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints have this season, you get to play in a game like this.
Sunday's showdown in New Orleans looks as delicious as the beignets and coffee at Cafe Du Monde always are. "Panthers-Saints, The Sequel" has heroes, villains, two teams boasting 8-3 records and a 4:25 p.m. Eastern start time that got moved back from an original 1 p.m. start so more people could see the show.
The winner vaults into first place in the NFC South.
New Orleans defensive end Cam Jordan was crowing after the Saints obliterated Carolina 34-13 in September in Charlotte, N.C. He laughed at the time both about Newton's clothing choices and what he saw as a misguided attempt by the Panthers to turn Newton into a quarterback who mostly stays in the pocket and throws the ball.
"Clearly, he's trying to be more of a pocket passer and I'm OK with it," Jordan said, smiling, after a game in which he sacked Newton once and New Orleans intercepted Newton three times. "Perfectly fine with it."
Jordan also said at the time that anytime Newton ran the ball the Saints "showed up on his high heels."
"Not that he wears high heels," Jordan said. "I don't think so yet, right? I mean he's gone with the grandma hat and the onesie. The Coachella onesie?"
When told that outfit from Newton was a "romper," a loose unitard-like garment typically worn by women that has lately been released in men's sizes and styles, Jordan replied: "Oh, the romper, the romp-him? We romped him."
No one realized then quite how good New Orleans really was. The Saints followed that victory over Carolina with seven more in a row, a streak that was finally broken Sunday when New Orleans lost 26-20 on the road to the L.A. Rams. New Orleans rookie running back Alvin Kamara has been a revelation, a worthy rival for years for Carolina's Christian McCaffrey.
The Panthers have won four straight to finally catch up with the Saints and tie for first place. The Panthers have made Newton's words after the 21-point loss to the Saints on Sept. 24 somewhat prophetic.
"Moving forward, there's no need to panic, there's no need to rush, there's no need to be up in arms about our situation," Newton insisted at the time. "Should you be frustrated as a fan? Absolutely. I'm frustrated with my lackluster performance and knowing that we are better than the performances we've been putting on the past couple of weeks. But listen — just be patient and know that big things are ahead for us. This year's Panthers team has big things to do."
Those big things have indeed come at times — the victory at New England being a prime example. They have also come after the Panthers have all but abandoned the idea that Newton was mostly a pocket quarterback. He led Carolina in rushing for four straight games at one point this season and still leads the team in rushing touchdowns, with five. Newton routinely carries the ball 8-11 times a game now, and took a huge hit against the Jets Sunday when he somersaulted into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
While the Saints enter the game following a loss, Carolina was lucky to escape with a 35-27 victory over the New York Jets Sunday. That came despite the Panthers allowing 307 passing yards and three touchdown passes to 38-year-old Josh McCown.
Drew Brees is a good bit better than McCown, and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is one of the toughest places to play in the NFL.
"It's a difficult place to play," linebacker Luke Kuechly said, "but that's what makes it fun. ... Drew is a monster. Kamara is a stud. (Wide receiver Michael) Thomas is a stud. ... We've got our work cut out for us."
Carolina will have no chance Sunday if Newton throws the ball as poorly as he did against the Jets (11-for-28 for 168 yards in a game where it seemed to me that Newton's injured right thumb was affecting his accuracy).
If the Panthers lose Sunday, they will have little chance to win the NFC South. They would trail New Orleans by only a game with four left to play but also would lose any tiebreaker to the Saints, meaning they would have to pick up two games in the final four weeks. That's unlikely. And the Panthers would also have Atlanta (7-4) to contend with as it fought to not drop to third in the South.1
A Panthers win, though, would give Carolina a one-game lead in the division and earn a split of the series. It could even position the Panthers for a possible playoff bye as the No. 2 overall seed. It would be almost impossible for Carolina to catch Philadelphia for the No. 1 slot because of the Eagles' earlier win over Carolina.
So this game is significant in a way that no game was during the Panthers' lost season of 2016.
Promised Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, leading Carolina in sacks with 8.5 at age 37: "We'll be ready."
Asked again about the Saints, Peppers said he wasn't about to offer any predictions.
"I'm just saying," Peppers repeated, "we'll be ready."
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