Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 12/31/11

For the final week of the 2011/12 NFL regular season, Drew Brees and his 12-3 New Orleans Saints will welcome Cam Newton and the 6-9 Carolina Panthers to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, January 1, 2012. Newton has impressed in such a way in his rookie season as to be the hands-down favorite for “Rookie of the Year” honors.

Carolina leads the head-to-head series against the Saints 17-16 up to this point. New Orleans, however, has won the last 3 in a row, 4 out of the last 5 and has an opportunity to even the series up next week. The Saints beat the Panthers earlier this season in Charlotte on October 9, in week 5, by the final score of 30-27.

Goals still left for the Saints to accomplish in this season:

1) End the season with a bang by winning all Home-Sweet-Dome games and making possible the unlikely scenario of securing the number 2 seed in the NFC away from the 49ers.

2) Protect Drew Brees‘ new season high passing record from being surpassed by Tom Brady (only 190 yards behind Brees at present).

3) Potentially collect a couple more records for players Jimmy Graham (2012 Pro Bowl starter) and Darren Sproles.

Graham needs 78 yards to break Kellen Winslow Sr.‘s NFL record of 1,290 receiving yards in the 1980 season – the most in a single-season by a tight end. Unfortunately, New England‘s Rob Gronkowski is also only 72 yards shy of moving ahead of Winslow’s record.

Darren Sproles (2,528 all-purpose yds) is in need of just 120 all-purpose yards to break the all-time Saints’ record of 2,647 yds set in 2002 by Michael “Beer Man” Lewis and only 163 to surpass the NFL best record of 2,690 as put up by the Tennessee TitansDerrick Mason in 2000.

Round one of this matchup between the Saints and Carolina was a hard-fought game that went to the team with the deeper resolve to win with New Orleans taking the road victory from the hosting Panthers 30-27.

This rematch might appear on the surface to be no different from the first meeting, with both teams boasting impressive winning streaks.

Carolina has won their last two in a row and four out of their last five.

The Saints, meanwhile, are on a 7-game winning streak of their own and tied with the New England Patriots for the longest streak in the NFL this season.

Controlling Cam Newton (passing game, read option offense and run-game, all combined) and limiting the rushing attack of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams will be key for the Saints in this one. They also can’t forget about the ever-constant threat of WR Steve Smith, who has beaten them more times than I care to remember at this point.

Jeremy Shockey could also prove to be a thorn in the Saints‘ side if he is allowed to go unchecked. Maybe he can be a better sport this time and at least shake hands with his former teammates after the game, unlike the first time they met this year.

According to SaintsHead Coach Sean Payton:

Four players missed practice for the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday — LB Jonathan Vilma 51 (knee), FS Malcolm Jenkins 27 (neck), WR Lance Moore 16 (hamstring) and TE John Gilmore 89 (toe). RB Mark Ingram 28 (toe) practiced on a limited basis for the first time in weeks.

Final (Friday) Injury Report:

RB Mark Ingram will be OUT for the game Sunday as he continues to be plagued by a turf toe injury.  WR Lance Moore has also been ruled OUT and will not play.  Moore tweaked his hamstring last week in practice, and the Saints don’t want to risk injuring it any further before the post-season.  TE John Gilmore is also OUT with a toe injury of his own.  Head Coach Sean Payton says FS Malcolm Jenkins is QUESTIONABLE with a neck injury.  LB Jonathan Vilma is QUESTIONABLE as well with a nagging knee injury.  The following players are all PROBABLE:  S Patrick Robinson (hip) and LB Jonathan Casillas (knee).

HC Sean Payton also says that he plans to have all hands on deck for this divisional rematch with Carolina in the Superdome on New Year’s Day and won’t rest any healthy starters.

I would, however, expect that if New Orleans gets out to a big enough lead and accomplishes the goals that I listed above, he may decide to rest some of his key starters later in this game in lieu of the upcoming playoff run.

My final score prediction here, in keeping with the recent trend of 40-burgers put up by New Orleans, is Saints over Panthers 42-20.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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