Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 10/8/11

Vegas Betting Line: Panthers + 6.5

New Orleans Saints fans everywhere, whatever you do this week, do not, I repeat, “DO NOT!!!” put money on your team to cover the points in Vegas against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers this Sunday in Charlotte! Since Carolina came into the league in 1995, this has grown to become one of the more heated rivalries in the entire NFL, at least in my own personal opinion as a lifelong Saints fan from the very beginning.

After splitting the series evenly in 1995 at 1-1, Carolina jumped out to a quick lead over the Saints that next year in 1996 and held onto the lead through 1999 until 2000, when New Orleans tied it up again 6-6 by sweeping the Panthers for the first time ever that same year. The Saints would then take the lead for the first time ever in the series in 2001 by sweeping the Panthers for the second straight season in a row. They would only hold that lead for 2 short years as Carolina would sweep New Orleans for their second time ever, since they did it the first time in ’96, and tie the series up again 9-9 in 2003. The Saints tied it back up again by the end of the next season in 2004 10-10. Carolina kept the series tied the next year in 2005 11-11 by beating the Saints in Baton Rouge on December 4 during the season of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

While the Panthers have maintained control of the lead in this series from that point until now at 17-15 with two seasons of sweeps over the Saints in 2006 and 2008, their grasp of that lead has begun to diminish with New Orleans paying them back with their third sweep of the series just last year. A sweep by the Saints over the Panthers this year would tie the series up again at 17 games apiece.

The goal is to regain the lead over them and never relinquish it again, much like the case has been over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since about 1984 in that head-to-head series.

Next to the Saints-Falcons rivalry, which has been going strong nearly since New Orleans first entered the league in 1967, this series is next on my list as the most crucial for the Saints to get even or move ahead against the competition, at least within our own division.

Our boys in Black and Gold still have a whole lot of pay-back to follow through on against the San Francisco 49ers from the not-so-good-old days in the old NFC West, but that’s a completely different story altogether and they have certainly been working on it here over the past decade or so. The New Orleans Saints have won the last 6 games in a row against the San Francisco 49ers since 2002, and are 8 and 2 over the last 10 games played between the two teams since 2000.

While Atlanta came into the NFL just one year ahead of the Saints in 1966, those two teams have not always been in the same division for their entire professional careers. The Falcons were actually members of the Eastern Conference, an affiliation which actually at least made sense geographically, in the old National Football League back in their rookie season of 1966. That was the only year for Atlanta in the Coastal Division of the NFL during the final four years of pro football in that particular league to be divided into just four divisions, all named with the first letter “C”, and that one consisting of four teams all situated in close proximity to the coasts of the United States (Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Colts, Los Angeles Rams, and San Francisco 49ers). Capital, Central and Century were the names of the other three divisions of the NFL back then before the merger of the NFL and the AFL in 1970. From 1967 to 1969, the Coastal Division was repositioned into the Western Conference of the NFL while the Saints were added into the Capital Division in the NFL’s Eastern Conference to compete with the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins for their first three years. It was the 1970 merger between the NFL and the AFL which finally pitted the Saints with the 49ers, the Falcons and the Rams, who were then in Los Angeles until the most recent realignment in 1995.

The game this Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC and scheduled to start at NOON Central Time carries with it quite a few story lines. For one, it will feature the last two Heisman Trophy winners, Mark Ingram, Jr. from Alabama in 2009 who is now playing at the running back position for the New Orleans Saints and Cam Newton from Auburn in 2010 starting at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, competing on opposite sides of the field in trying to help their current teams succeed.

Aside from up and coming rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who is having a tremendous season already for the Panthers despite their current losing record of only 1-3 right now, New Orleans is also most likely to be vulnerable to the skills of Steve Smith at wide receiver as well as former Saint and Giant Jeremy Shockey at tight end, who always plays with a huge chip on his shoulder and is reportedly still bitter over his release from the Saints at the end of last season. Carolina has another stud of a tight end, which is a definite weak point in New Orleans’ defense as of late, in Greg Olsen, who is another former Miami Hurricane player just like Shockey and his replacement for the Saints in Jimmy Graham.

Saints kicker, John Kasay, who replaced Garrett Hartley on his move to the Injured Reserve list for New Orleans this season, just happens to have played all but the first 4 years of his pro career, spent with the Seattle Seahawks after being drafted by them in the 4th round of the 1991 NFL Draft, in Carolina for the Panthers from 1995 to 2010.

I do expect New Orleans to perhaps start slowly offensively, since they are on another road trip this week, while the Carolina Panthers should be fired up at home and keep the score fairly close, especially early on, but fully anticipate that the Saints will get it kicked into high gear and finish things right by the final quarter of play.

I look for the New Orleans Saints to try and establish their running game with the 3-headed monster of Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles early and often, while aiming to limit the running game of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers. Also, expect tight end Jimmy Graham, or “The Graham Reaper” as some Saints fans have dubbed him already this year, to have yet another stellar numbers game on his way to sure greatness.

Won’t that just make Jeremy Shockey even madder about being released by the Saints to add further insult to injury? While I respect Shockey for his abilities and loved him as a Saint for as long as he was wearing the Black and Gold, he was just far too injury prone and his time-line for great performances has really passed him by in my opinion. It was the ideal time to release the fury of Jimmy Graham onto the rest of the league and I applaud Sean Payton for his impeccable timing.

Saints who did not practice Friday: C Olin Kreutz 50 (left knee), RT Zach Strief 64 (right knee), TE David Thomas 85 (concussion) and LB Will Herring 54 (hamstring).

New Orleans players who were limited in practice on Friday: LB Martez Wilson 95 (left shoulder), LB Jonathan Vilma 51 (left knee) and WR Devery Henderson 19 (calf).

Saints injury report: WR Devery Henderson questionable after returning to practice on a limited basis Friday. LB Jon Vilma probable. LB Will Herring and C Olin Kreutz questionable. LB Martez Wilson doubtful. TE Dave Thomas and RT Zach Strief out.

My final prediction for this game is New Orleans Saints 31, Carolina Panthers 27, with Jimmy Graham going for 100 yards receiving for the third week in a row.

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