The Carolina Panthers know what sort of football team they have. They boast the longest current winning streak in the NFL at eight games and they rank No. 1 in scoring defense.
But the Panthers must now answer the same question as a typical French Quarter tourist: Can they handle a New Orleans po’boy sandwich?
The Panthers play at New Orleans Sunday night in a matchup so enticing it got switched to prime time. Then they host the Saints in Charlotte on Dec. 22. Like the po’boy itself – a New Orleans concoction with French bread on both sides and fried seafood often spilling out – this is a delicious NFL scheduling rarity.
The two best teams in the NFC South will decide the division title in a three-week span. A third matchup in January in the playoffs is also possible.
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The Saints look to have the advantage in most of the tiebreaker scenarios, which means the Panthers likely would need to sweep New Orleans in December to win the NFC South and host at least one playoff game in Charlotte in January.
Of those two games against the Saints, the one in New Orleans will be the most difficult test because the Superdome is legendarily loud.
“We don’t have to do anything revolutionary,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “We know who we are. We don’t have to redefine that. We just have to do the recipe that we’ve been doing.”
That recipe is built on the ingredients of great defense, a balanced offense and a dual-threat quarterback in Cam Newton who is good for a couple of jaw-dropping plays per game.
“We’re ready,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said after Carolina whipped Tampa Bay, 27-6, Sunday to move to 9-3 after a 1-3 start. “It’s on a big stage, man, and we’ve played well on a big stage before. If we get this win, it gives us the upper hand.”
I don’t know what the numbers say, but to me New Orleans is 10 points better at home compared to on the road. Their offense is speed-based and faster on turf. And then there’s the noise – even in bad years, Saints games often sound like they are played inside a pair of clanging cymbals.
I have covered games in all 16 NFC cities, and the crowds in New Orleans and Seattle are louder than anywhere else in the conference. It’s no coincidence that if the playoffs began today, those two teams would grab the two NFC playoff byes.
Is New Orleans truly the loudest crowd in the NFL? I asked Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross.
“Once you get to the ‘ridiculously loud’ category, I’m not sure it matters,” Gross said. “And it’s ridiculously loud in New Orleans.”
It’s also familiar. The Panthers play at New Orleans every year and beat the Saints 44-38 in the 2012 season finale in the Superdome.
“We’ve gone to that place a lot,” center Ryan Kalil said. “We already know the songs we’re going to hear over and over again, so much that they get stuck in your head. But I think those kinds of things are good for us, having that experience already.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera planned to watch every second of Monday night’s Seattle-New Orleans game. And he wasn’t too proud to say he would listen to TV analyst Jon Gruden to see if he could pick up any tips on the Saints.
Rivera said the first game of this two-game series was particularly important because “you want to set the tone and tempo for when you play them a second time.”
And, the coach continued: “Really the thing you have to be careful of, too, is that after that first game going into the second one, you don’t want to sit there and out-think yourself.”
As for Panthers fans, they are just happy to have something to think about. There will be all sorts of playoff scenarios over the next few weeks.
But the bottom line for the Panthers’ playoff seeding will be how well they can digest the monster sandwich about to appear on their plate.