Panthers-Saints Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated December 28, 2011
Drew Brees and Cam Newton both wrote their names into the NFL record books in Week 16, adding acclaim to what have been fantastic campaigns from each. While Newton looks to conclude his tremendous rookie season on a high note, it remains to be seen if Brees will take the field at home Sunday against the Carolina Panthers with the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints possibly choosing to err on the side of caution. Brees threw for 307 yards and four touchdowns - breaking Dan Marino's mark of 5,084 passing yards set in 1984 - and the Saints clinched their second NFC South title in three years with Monday night's 45-16 rout of Atlanta. "This record isn't about one person. There might be just one name that goes in ledger under the record, but it's really about the team," Brees told his teammates. "I want everyone to feel a huge part of this, that this record would not have been possible without them." New Orleans (12-3), which has the third seed in the NFC locked up, can only improve its postseason position with both a victory over the Panthers (6-9) and an unlikely San Francisco loss to St. Louis. Given the circumstances, coach Sean Payton could choose to rest Brees for most - if not all - of Sunday's game. Payton found himself in a similar situation after clinching the division early in 2009. He decided to hold Brees out of the regular-season finale at Carolina that year before ultimately leading New Orleans to its first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. "It was what we needed to do as a team (at that time). "You make decisions. They are not always right. You try to make them with the right things to help your team," said Payton, whose team has outscored opponents by an average of 15.6 points during a seven-game winning streak. "We just have to be smart. We are playing well, with some momentum. Each year is different." With 5,087 passing yards, Brees enters Week 17 just 190 ahead of New England's Tom Brady - leaving Payton with a difficult decision. With the Patriots needing a win to clinch the top spot in the AFC, Brady could very well surpass Brees' mark if the Saints' QB doesn't play. "I'm not really aware of the space between the two. I am probably better off not knowing," Payton said. "(We have to) put ourselves in the best position to play well and put ourselves in an opportunity to win a championship." Chase Daniel, now in his second NFL season, figures to start if Brees is held out. Daniel has attempted just five career passes. Though the Panthers will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season, they have plenty to be excited about heading into next year thanks to Newton. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft has led Carolina to four wins in five games and helped post the second-highest scoring output in franchise history during Saturday's 48-16 dismantling of Tampa Bay. Newton completed 12 of 17 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns, surpassing Peyton Manning's previous record for passing yards by a rookie. "For me to come in and do this is a tribute to so many people, including my coaches," Newton, who's thrown for 3,893 yards and run for another 674, told the team's official website. "(My teammates) make my job easy. All I've got to do is put the ball in their vicinity, and they do the rest." While others have certainly stepped up - most notably wideout Steve Smith - Newton has accounted for 34 of Carolina's 45 offensive touchdowns. His 14 rushing TDs are the most by a quarterback in NFL history. "I believe there is certainly that kind of talent in the locker where we can certainly take the next step and become a very competitive football team (next year)," coach Ron Rivera said. "We have that ability." Smith, who along with center Ryan Kalil will represent the Panthers at the Pro Bowl, is four receptions away from surpassing Muhsin Muhammad's team record of 696. Carolina has dropped three straight in this series, but will look to take another step in the right direction with a win Sunday - no matter who the Saints have under center. "Either way, New Orleans is going to have to win, so they're going to have to play and play hard. We're going to show up and play as hard as we can, too," Rivera said. "You want their best shot. You want to give your best shot and you want to take their best shot." The Panthers found themselves on the verge of victory Oct. 9 but suffered a 30-27 defeat after Brees found Pierre Thomas for a six-yard touchdown with 50 seconds remaining. The Saints, who have won all seven games at the Superdome this season, have never gone 8-0 at home.
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