ESPN needs to make up its damn mind.
Upset Watch: Carolina (+3.5) at New Orleans
Shocking as it may sound, it is in fact possible for New Orleans to lose a game at home. In fact, the Saints lost four of them at the Superdome last year. Sean Payton hasn't lost a home game as head coach since 2010, but in the 2009 and 2010 regular seasons, the Saints were actually better on the road (13-3) than at home (11-5).
And so the Panthers may be able to make up the Saints' big home-field advantage by virtue of being the better team this year. Football Outsiders overall ratings have the Panthers third and the Saints fourth, but the gap between the two is nearly 10 percentage points, larger than the gap between the Saints and the team ranked 10th. Although both teams are in the top eight among NFL offenses, the Panthers have been significantly better on defense this season.
[+] EnlargeGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesLuke Kuechly is the centerpiece of a Panthers defense that has been quite strong against the run this season.
It will be particularly tough for the Saints to run on a Carolina defense that we rank third overall against the run. The Saints' offense has some peculiar splits when running the ball -- we rank them seventh on first down, but 29th running the ball on second down and 25th on third down.
The Saints' defense has a similar split, perhaps because of the way Rob Ryan likes to bring heavy pass pressure on clear passing downs. The Saints rank third in the league in run defense DVOA on first downs, but they are just 30th on second downs and dead last on third downs. The run-heavy Panthers should be perfectly set up to take advantage of this weakness, particularly if they can go against type and pass on first down while running on second and third downs.
The biggest challenge for Carolina will be slowing down the New Orleans pass rush. The Saints lead the league in adjusted sack rate (ASR), while the Panthers' offensive line is just 27th. However, the better pass-rush tactic will be to bring the defensive line and let the the defensive backs cover. Opponents like to big blitz Cam Newton -- only Ben Roethlisbergerand Ryan Tannehill have faced six or more pass-rushers more often -- but Newton has completed 70 percent of his passes against these big blitzes, with a QBR of 95.8. He's not quite as good when opponents blitz a defensive back (another common Rob Ryan strategy), but his 77.0 QBR on these plays is still excellent.
However, the strategy of passing in running situations doesn't necessarily suggest that play-action fakes will work well against the Saints. The Panthers use play-action on about a quarter of all pass plays, but Newton has a 53.3 QBR on these plays (lower than his 57.0 QBR overall). Meanwhile, the Saints' defense has yielded a 37.0 QBR for opponents running play-action, the third best in the NFL.
Look for the Panthers to take advantage of a Saints defense that starts slow; they rank 23rd in defensive DVOA before halftime, then improve to fifth after halftime.