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Drew Brees, Cam Newton will ultimately decide Saints at Panthers

On Sunday at 1 p.m. in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers play their biggest game in, oh, what, about two weeks?

It was only Dec. 8 when the Panthers and New Orleans Saints first locked up, and the Saints embarrassed the Panthers in the Superdome, 31-13.

What will be different this time in a game in which the winner is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs?

Not much if Carolina’s defense can’t do any better with Drew Brees. A whole lot if the Panthers play Brees with more ferocity and Cam Newton has a better game.

The two quarterbacks in this game will be, by far, its biggest keys. Newton was mostly ineffective against the Saints two weeks ago, and that was partly because he got very little help from his receivers who kept getting pushed around and an offensive line that was too often manhandled.

Brees, on the other hand, was his usual wondrous self. Here’s an instructive stat. Brees threw for 313 yards against the Panthers that first time around. Pretty darn good, right?

In terms of yardage, that didn’t even make Brees’ top five against just the Panthers. It barely qualified for his top 10 (it was eighth).

So Brees is going to pile up some yardage. No doubt. But he has to be made uncomfortable. He can’t be allowed to step into every throw. He can’t be allowed to have time to get to his third read when the first two are well-covered.

•  As for Newton, he had a measly 111 net passing yards against New Orleans. He took five sacks for 49 yards and threw for only 160. No Panthers receiver could get to 50 yards as the Saints simply outplayed the Panthers everywhere.

In this game, Newton has to be very good to win. And he’s going to have to hit a few deep throws. In the first game, of Newton’s 34 passes, not a single one was completed for a gain of 20 yards or longer. The screen pass could also be a big Panthers weapon Sunday, but Newton will also have to make quicker decisions.

•  It will be a pleasure hearing Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the broadcast booth for those watching at home. They are a great pairing.

•  I’d like to see Mike Tolbert a lot more involved in this game as the Panthers try to establish the run again early. The Panthers almost eliminated Tolbert from the offense the first time around – he only touched the ball five times. And the Saints do give up yardage to pounding backs of the Tolbert variety. St. Louis bruiser Zac Stacy ran 28 times for 133 yards last week in St. Louis’ upset of the Saints.

•  How many points does Carolina need to score to win? At least 20. In the 50 games that Sean Payton has coached for New Orleans in which the opponent scores 20 or fewer, the Saints’ record is 47-3.

•  On Dec. 8, I picked the Panthers to upset New Orleans. This was a serious mistake. So ... fool me once, shame on you. Will the Panthers fool me twice?

Maybe so. But I think the Panthers will pull it off in front of the home crowd. My prediction: Carolina 30, New Orleans 27.