The NFL playoff-bound and (13-2) New Orleans Saints have already clinched home-field advantage for the 2018 NFL post-season, but they still need to take care of business against their NFC South Division rivals the (6-9) Carolina Panthers. They’ll face off at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the regular season finale for both teams. Kickoff is at 12:00 p.m. Central time and will be broadcast regionally by FOX.
With New Orleans having already accomplished all of their goals for the regular season while Carolina is only playing for pride due to a losing record and having missed a playoff spot, many observers and analyst consider this to essentially be a meaningless game.
Since the Saints have clinched the #1 overall playoff seed in the NFC and have home-field advantage throughout the entire NFL playoffs, they will have the first week (known as the Wild Card Round) of the post-season off with a Bye Week. They won’t actually play again until the Divisional Round of the Playoffs on the weekend of January 12th and the 13th— when they will host the lowest-seeded winner of the Wild Card Round.
As for the Panthers, they have lost seven straight games and have now begun the process of season-ending player and staff evaluations before looking further ahead to the 2019 off-season.
However, this is still the NFL, and both teams are still approaching this final contest as if it were an important game; even though it’s expected that the backup players on both squads will see extensive action, in a manner very similar to the preseason games in August.
The two teams just played each other two weeks ago at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina; a 12-9 victory for the Saints over the Panthers that allowed New Orleans to clinch their 2nd consecutive NFC South Division Championship. The Saints and Panthers are now tied in the all-time series between the two franchises, at 24-24.
And so, it’s with all of that in mind this morning, that Big Easy Magazine presents our 5 Bold Predictions for this Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Carolina Panthers, as the Saints attempt to win their 14th and final game of the 2018 NFL regular season before making preparations for next month’s NFL playoffs, and what they hope will be a run all the way to Super Bowl LIII (53) in Atlanta.
As usual, we’ll start first at #5, and work our way down to #1…
#5. Drew Brees Plays Just Long Enough to Surpass the 4,000 Yard Passing Mark Before Being Relieved by Back-Up QB Teddy Bridgewater
With the Saints having already wrapped up the NFC’s #1 playoff seed, the belief among many observers is that the Saints would be better served holding a majority of their starting players out of this Sunday’s contest. However, Saints head coach Sean Payton was adamant earlier in the week that the team planned to approach this week just as if it were any other type of a regular season game or situation.
In this contest, Payton decides to let quarterback Drew Brees get the start; if for nothing else to allow Brees maintain his strict adherence to his in-season training and preparation regimen, so that the soon-to-be 40-year old can stay in rhythm with the playoffs still to come. Additionally, Brees only needs to throw for eight more passing yards (he currently has 3,992 yards) to eclipse the 4,000-yard mark for the season.
Brees plays for two series, leading the Saints to a Wil Lutz field goal and completes five passes out of seven attempts for 56 yards, before being replaced by back-up/#2 quarterback Teddy Bridgewater early in the 2nd quarter.
Bridgewater has a solid day the rest of the way, completing 14 out of 18 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown; while gaining an additional 52 yards with his legs running the ball on five carries, including a brilliant 13-yard scramble after escaping a near-sack by Panthers defensive end Mario Addison.
#4. On the Flip Side, Carolina Undrafted Rookie QB Kyle Allen Has a Mixed Day in His Debut as a Starting NFL Quarterback
Coach Ron Rivera said undrafted rookie Kyle Allen will start against the Saints this weekend with Carolina already eliminated from playoff contention.
— WFNZ-AM/FM (@wfnz) December 26, 2018
Normal starting Panthers quarterback Cam Newton started and played the entire game the last time that these two teams met two weeks ago at Charlotte; but he has since been shut down by the Carolina coaching staff after a nagging shoulder injury suffered earlier in the season never had the chance to fully heal — and thus was negatively (and noticeably) impacting his play during their losing streak.
Newton was replaced at first by Panthers #2 quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who started in last Sunday against the Falcons at Atlanta but appeared to struggle a bit in what was his very first NFL career start. Heinicke completed 33 out-of 53 passes for 274 yards, but rather unfortunately for him (and the Panthers) also ended up throwing 3 interceptions in the process, which ultimately led to a 24-10 loss.
But surprisingly, Heinicke was placed on injured reserve Tuesday, after it was determined that the elbow injury that he suffered in the 2nd quarter against the Falcons was more severe than first thought. Which means that in this game coming up on Sunday, 3rd string quarterback and 22-year old undrafted rookie Kyle Allen will now be getting his first ever NFL start.
Allen was perfect in the limited “mop-up” action that he saw late in the game last week, as he finished 4-for-4 for 38 yards. Allen played at Texas A&M for the 1st half of his college career (2014-15), before he transferred to the University of Houston as a redshirt junior and played for the Cougars as a senior last season. The Panthers signed Allen after the 2018 NFL Draft and he eventually made the Carolina Practice Squad, but was cut in September before being re-signed yet again just a few weeks later.
Allen will have a mixed day in his first-ever start, completing 27-out-of-41 pass attempts for 322 yards and a touchdown, with one interception (by CB Marshon Lattimore). But not before the Saints defensive line gets him a bit rattled later in the contest, no doubt in part to sacking him a total of five times — including two by Sheldon Rankins.
#3. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore Gets a “Pick 6” Interception Return For a Touchdown and a Spot in the ESPN Sports Center “Top 10 Plays of the Day”
As we noted above, Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen has a mixed day in his first NFL start. During the moments where he struggles, one of the causes of his trepidation will be none other than Saint2nd-year Marshon Lattimore — who has had a bit of a disappointing sophomore effort in his second NFL season after last year’s award-winning 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Lattimore hasn’t nearly had the amount of impact numbers-wise that he last year, and only has two interceptions this season in comparison to the five interceptions that he had as a rookie. But nevertheless, he’s still had some memorable moments and has made some big plays when the Saints have needed it; as evidenced by his four forced fumbles thus season.
Lattimore will end the regular season on a high note, as he takes and snatches Allen’s poorly-thrown (and poorly-timed and poorly-executed) pass intended for Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel out of the air in mid-flight, and takes it all the way down the sidelines in front of a wildly-celebrating Saints bench, for a “Pick 6” interception return of 78 yards.
And as a result: Lattimore’s score is featured for the rest of the night on ESPN’s Sports Center broadcasts, making that show’s nightly and long-time popular segment known as the “Top 10 Plays of the Day” at the #3 overall spot.
#2. Saints Undrafted Rookie Wide Receiver Keith Kirkwood Has a Career Day in His Most Extensive NFL Game Action Ever
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 23, 2018
Saints undrafted rookie wide receiver Keith Kirkwood has been used sparingly this season, and has 13 receptions for 209 yards (a 16.1 yard average) and 2 TD’s, in the 7 games that he’s played since being promoted to the roster from the Practice Squad prior to the Week #10 contest at Cincinnati.
He hasn’t caught more than three passes in any one of those seven games, but with the team looking to rest veteran wide receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. for much of this game, Kirkwood will get the chance to have the spotlight shine brightly upon him for once.
Kirkwood will have two early receptions from Brees in the 1st quarter for 26 yards, but then will almost exclusively become the favorite target of back-up quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the remaining majority of the contest.
Kirkwood — the former Temple University star — will catch an additional nine passes from Bridgewater for another 142 yards and a touchdown, which comes on a beautifully thrown pass by Bridgewater that fits right in between two Panthers’ defensive backs for a thrilling 58-yard-catch-and-run for a touchdown late in the 3rd quarter. Kirkwood finishes the game with an NFL-career best 11 receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown.
#1. The Saints Are BARELY Hanging on to 17-14 Lead Late in the 4th Quarter When…
…When a big-time hit on Allen with the Panthers facing a crucial 3rd-and-13 to go from their own 39-yard line is flagged by the referees for unnecessary roughness against Rankins, who almost single-handedly has completely had his way and dominated the Carolina O-Line by this point.
On the next play from scrimmage after the penalty is accessed, and with Carolina operating with a 1st down at the Saints 46-yard line with just a little over two minutes left to play, Panthers 2nd-year superstar running back Christian McCaffrey takes a screen pass from Allen and bursts into the open field. He eludes several would-be Saints tacklers for a sensational 54-yard-catch-and-run touchdown that gives the Panthers a 21-17 lead — while leaving the Superdome in a stunned state of silence.
But New Orleans still has 1:58 showing on the game clock, which might just as well be an entire lifetime for the Saints offense. Bridgewater then meticulously guides the Black and Gold down the field with a splendid array of quick passes along with a few well-timed scrambles out of the pocket, getting them all the way down to inside the Carolina 20-yard line with only :27 seconds remaining on the game clock.
A screen pass to back-up running back Dwayne Washington nets five yards, but two more incompletions have New Orleans now faced with a 4th-Down-and-5 to go at the Carolina 14-yard line with only :6 seconds remaining; the Saints needing a touchdown to pull out the win.
The Superdome crowd holds its baited breath as Bridgewater drops back to throw, when suddenly everyone in the whole stadium can see Saints 6th-year veteran back-up tight end Josh Hill break WIDE OPEN in the end zone and awaiting the pass for the game-winning score.
Bridgewater is pressured initially but sees Hill open and throws the ball to him right where it needs to be, but as Hill braces for the impact that he’s about to take from Panthers safety Eric Reid, he loses concentration for a split-second and inexplicably DROPS THE BALL in the end zone.
Carolina ends the season on a positive note with a (7-9) record and breaks their 7-game losing streak, while New Orleans still finishes the season with a (13-3) record. They now turn their focus towards the NFL playoffs and what they hope will be a post-season that ultimately ends with a Super Bowl title – more on that when we return with our Bold Predictions for the Saints in the NFC Divisional Playoffs in two weeks.
FINAL SCORE: PANTHERS 21, SAINTS 17
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. You can view the rest of his Saints coverage and several feature articles here.