Brian Allee-Walsh

Carolina risks unbeaten record against Saints next week

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dances in the end zone following a rushing touchdown Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dances in the end zone following a rushing touchdown Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

NEW ORLEANS

As I watched the Carolina Panthers demolish the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, I couldn't help but think how far the New Orleans Saints have fallen by comparison in a few short years.

The records don't lie.

The Panthers are 11-0 with a virtual stranglehold on their third consecutive NFC South championship and all-important homefield advantage in the NFC. Meaning, barring a collapse over the final five games, the NFC road to Super Bowl 50 will go through Carolina and Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte, N.C.

They epitomize the word team, playing complementary football in all three phases.

Quarterback Cam Newton is playing at a high level and solidly in the conversation for league MVP honors, along with New England quarterback Tom Brady and Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer.

One of the league's elite defensive units, Carolina leads the NFL in points scored off turnovers with 107, including 17 in Thursday's 33-14 win over the Cowboys, two on pick 6's by safety Kurt Coleman and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

And to think that Panthers coach Ron Rivera nearly lost his job during the first month of the 2013 season, a season where Carolina opened 1-3 and finished 11-1 en route to winning a division championship.

The Saints, meanwhile, are 4-6 and giving up yards and points at an alarming rate, prompting coach Sean Payton to make an in-season change at defensive coordinator before he went off to Hawaii to recharge his batteries during the bye week.

Or, in the words of outgoing DC Rob Ryan, the "bye-bye week.''

So for those keeping score at home, cross out Ryan and insert the name of Dennis Allen as the Saints' secretary of defense for the final six games, beginning Sunday against the resurgent Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.

You can also cross out the Saints among the teams competing for division laurels. They were officially eliminated Thursday as a result of Carolina's 11th victory, leaving Atlanta (6-4) and Tampa Bay (5-5) still in mathematical contention.

The best New Orleans can finish now is 10-6, and that's running the table at Houston (5-5), Carolina, at Tampa Bay, Detroit (4-7), Jacksonville (4-6) and at Atlanta. Don't bet on that happening, not even with someone else's money.

I'm not going to insult your intelligence any longer and suggest the Saints can make the playoffs. In fact, it would be a victory of sorts if they go 4-2 or 3-3 down the stretch and give the appearance of being a decent football team heading into the offseason.

After all, there are still things to play for, though I would not rank a playoff berth in my top 3. In my opinion, that is a pipe dream. A .500 season is a realistic goal.

No, the 2015 Saints should play every play as if their jobs depend on it.

As in "Do Your Job Well,'' as the undefeated Carolina Panthers have done on a weekly basis this season.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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