NEW ORLEANS There's a simple explanation as to why the New Orleans Saints twice humbled the Carolina Panthers during the regular season.
Future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees showed up for the Saints.
And, Superman was conspicously absent for the Panthers.
If Carolina quarterback Cam Newton doesn't don his cape and play like a superhero in Sunday's NFC wildcard game at the Mercedes Benz Superdome, the Black and Gold likely will complete the rare trifecta and advance to the divisional round.
I know this: If Bad Cam shows up for the 3:40 p.m. kickoff (Fox), and not Good Cam, Carolina's chances of winning diminish greatly. Brees doesn't have to play great. He just has to be himself, which oftentimes has been good enough, especially in home wildcard games. His record is impeccable -- 4-0, 10 TD passes and no INTs.
Conversely, for Carolina to prevail, Newton likely will have to put his team on his back as he did during his team's Super Bowl season in 2015 when he earned league-MVP honors.
He can't misfire on his first nine passes, throw three picks and post a career-low 31.5 QB rating as he did in a 22-10 loss in Week 17 at Atlanta, in part preventing the Panthers from overtaking the Saints and winning the NFC South.
He can't play like he did in a 34-13 loss to the visiting, then-winless Saints in Week 3, when he threw three interceptions, got sacked four times, posted a 43.8 QB rating and didn't look fully healthy from off-season shoulder surgery.
He can't play like he did in a shocking 17-3 loss at Chicago in Week 7, when he got sacked five times, posted a 54.9 QB rating, provided a helping hand in two Bears defensive TDs and looked more and more disinterested with each squandered possession.
Aside from Brees and Newton, there are other storylines and subplots to consider Sunday:
▪ Each team will have key players on the field who were not present in either game because of injuries: New Orleans rookie Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore (5 INTs), left tackle Terron Armstead, and Carolina big-play tight end Greg Olsen and veteran center Ryan Kalil.
▪ The Panthers defense led by indefatigable middle linebacker Luke Kuechly will have to find a way to neutralize the Saints' Boom & Zoom running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, each of whom eclipsed 1,500-yards from scrimmage and combined for 26 TDs.
▪ Look for the Saints' vastly improved defense under coordinator Dennis Allen to bring pressure early and often and still be gap sound against Newton, who poses a threat to run under duress and on designed plays. The pressure starts up front with NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate, end Cameron Jordan, who posted a career-high13 sacks.
▪ And, the spotlight will fall on two of the NFL's emerging young stars -- Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey and Kamara, who arguably turned into the steal of the draft as a third-round pick. Kamara added to his impressive resume this week when ESPN Stats & Information revealed that his 7.7 yards per touch is the highest single-season average in NFL history among players with at least 200 offensive touches.
But, for me, it all boils down to the play of the quarterbacks in this survive-and-advance game, and the clear edge goes to Brees and a defense that will tug enough times on Superman's cape.