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Thursday Night Football Preview: Saints at Panthers

TNF Week 11

Since 2006, the Saints and the Panthers have accounted for seven NFC south division championships. As far as this season is concerned though both teams are below .500 as time continues to dwindle on their respective playoff aspirations.

Thursday Night Football Preview

Saints at Panthers -3.5

drew-breesSince 2006, the Saints and the Panthers have accounted for seven NFC south division championships. As far as this season is concerned though both teams are below .500 as time continues to dwindle on their respective playoff aspirations. Both of these teams are coming off of tough losses in week 10 and this Thursday night one will look to use the other as a stepping stone in a last ditch effort to salvage some relevancy this season. The Panthers will serve as the home team favorite with a 3.5 point spread along with an over under of fifty two.

The Saints will go marching into Carolina with a chip on their shoulder as week 10 had them dropping their third home loss of the season in the form of a controversial touchdown return on a blocked extra point. The Saints had won four of their last five games before last weeks loss and will look to rebound quickly against the defending NFC Champions. Lucky for them they have one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Drew Brees. The Texas native has 300 yard passing performances in six of the Saints nine games this season. Two of those six 300 yard performances have come on the road where Brees has notoriously struggled.

[the_ad id=”66786″]The Saints are 2-2 on the road this season and Brees will look to get the Saints over that hump by spreading the ball around to his numerous playmakers. Brees has always been known to spread the ball around and this season is no different as the Saints have six players with thirty or more targets. The top three of those six have fifty or more targets and 15 touchdowns between them. Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks, and Willie Snead have been one of the better wide receiver trios that the league has had this year. Thomas is in his rookie season and may be one of the biggest surprises this season. The rookie has a catch percentage of 73.9% and only three other wide receivers in the league have a better percentage on 50 targets or more. Thomas leads the way in Saints receptions with 51 while Brandin Cooks leads the way in yards (694) and touchdowns (6). Cooks has been the big play option as three of his six touchdowns have been for thirty yards or more. While Cooks has been cashing in on the bigger plays it has been Snead providing the short game. Three of Willie Snead’s four touchdowns have been for five yards or less. Snead hadn’t seen a touchdown since week 2 until last week when he was in a position to put together two touchdowns on just five receptions.

Not all of the Saint pass catchers have been as productive. In his first year with the Saints, Coby Fleener has been one of the major inconsistencies in New Orleans. Tight ends before him like Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson have flourished in this offense while Fleener has only had two games with more than four receptions as well as two games with more than 50 yards receiving. The running back position has also been vital to success in New Orleans. Mark Ingram found himself in a rough patch this season after some fumbles but has responded well over the last two weeks with just over 200 yards rushing. Ingram has been productive in the passing game as well as he has put together 26 receptions for 180 yards and three touchdowns this season. When Ingram would have trouble this season it has been Tim Hightower who has been ready, willing, and able to take advantage of opportunities. Hightower had 20 carries or more in weeks eight and nine but managed just eight carries last week. Hightower will continue to hover around where Ingram falters and although some may consider that an issue for Ingram it is likely more of an issue for opposing defenses as Hightower is one of the more capable backups in the league. The average fan may find all of this confusing that the Saints could have so many options, be ranked as the second best offense in the league, but still sit with a 4-5 record. The average fan must have never seen the Saints defense because that is no doubt where they have come up short. The Saints currently have the 28th ranked defense in the league and are allowing a league worst average of 293 yards per game. The Saints have had four games this season in which they have allowed 30 points or more and until they learn how to keep points off the board the offense will have to score more than the other team.

cam-newtonThe Carolina Panthers have been an utter disaster when compared to their 2015 campaign. Some may blame the loss of Josh Norman while others will say it is Cam Newton being more concerned with officiating than playing. Regardless, the Panthers still sit at 3-6 and are scrambling for answers. After 10 games last season, Cam Newton had 20 passing touchdowns and 9 interceptions. After 10 games this season he has just 10 touchdowns with 7 interceptions. Newton will have to be at his best the rest of the way in order to salvage the season and the Saints may be his best case scenario. He has more passing yards (2,569) and touchdowns (18) against the Saints than he does any other team over his career. It’s not just about passing as Cam has been productive through the years by running the ball. Just last week was one of his more productive games on the ground this season as he ended up with 12 rushes for 54 yards and a touchdown. The last time he had a rushing touchdown before last week was against the Saints in week six.

[the_ad id=”63198″]The Panthers are the thirteenth ranked rushing offense in the league and Newton isn’t the only one to thank for that. The Panthers have four players with a hundred yards or more rushing and eight touchdowns between them. Their leading rusher is Jonathan Stewart whom despite missing some time due to injuries is averaging 3.6 yards per carry with four touchdowns. He has been productive but the opportunities haven’t always been there. He has had just one game with more than twenty rushing attempts and just last week had only thirteen. If there was ever a game for Stewart to turn up in a big way it would be against this Saints defense as they have allowed fourteen total touchdowns and just over 1,300 all purpose yards to running backs.

A lack of opportunities is something that Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin do not need to worry about. The duo currently accounts for a little over 45% of the entire teams targets. Benjamin had come out of the bye week with just five targets but last week saw that number rise to twelve. He managed to haul in seven of those twelve targets for 84 yards but was unable to score. What is a little bit more concerning is that Benjamin hasn’t reached the end zone since an October 2nd game against the Falcons. That trend could continue as the Saints have allowed the 7th most yards to opposing wide receivers but have only given up seven touchdowns. That makes the Saints just one of three teams to have allowed more than 1,600 yards to wide receivers but less than ten touchdowns. Look for Ted Ginn to get more involved in the offense as he has had 6 or more targets over the last three weeks which was something he was only able to do twice over his previous six games.

[the_ad id=”58835″]Clearly though, Newton hasn’t relied on a pass catcher more than he has his tight end Greg Olsen. The former University of Miami tight end is the most targeted tight end in football and averaging a league leading 79.1 yards per game for tight ends. The Saints have been a middle of the road team against the tight end but they’ll need to keep an eye on Olsen who has averaged 10.1 yards per reception against the Saints throughout his career. The Panther defense was bordering on being comical after being thrashed by Julio Jones and the Falcons in week 4. They have been leveling off though as of late while allowing more than twenty points in only one game since that time. That one game of course was against the Saints in the Superdome. The Saints and Panthers have combined for less than 45 points in only one game since 2014. Given both defenses it is tough to imagine that the trend will not continue. I think both quarterbacks come up big in this one and it will be a prototypical slugfest of whomever has the ball last wins. I like the Saints to put the final nail in the coffin for the 2016 Panthers.

My Prediction:  Saints 31 Panthers 29

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Fantasy Thoughts & Tips

As I said earlier on, the Saints and Panthers have totaled less than 45 points in their games just once since 2014. That is music to the ears of fantasy owners and I suspect we will see that same sort of point scoring this week. There is no doubt that you are starting both quarterbacks in this game. Drew Brees has been an ageless wonder as he has had six games with three or more touchdown passes. Newton isn’t having a MVP type of season, but the Saints are allowing the sixth most yards to quarterbacks. Last time these two played the Saints kept Newton in check on the ground as he managed just one rushing yard. That was just one of two games this season in which Newton had less than 20 yards rushing so I would expect Newton to do much better with his legs. The pass catchers are the biggest question marks in this contest. The talent on both sides of the ball is plentiful but it is just a matter of who will get more love on a week to week basis. Willie Snead has been productive this season but if you aren’t in a point per reception format I may look elsewhere. His targets have been consistent but he was unable to score a touchdown in the month of October.

[the_ad id=”58837″]I would look to start Michael Thomas and or Brandin Cooks this week. Cooks has reached the end zone in four of his last five games, while Coleman in that same span of games has averaged 76.8 yards receiving per game and has been consistently targeted. I think Greg Olsen is a no doubt starter in this contest as he is one of the best tight ends in football. This may make some folks develop a nervous twitch but I would keep an open mind in regards to Coby Fleener this week. One of his best games this season was against this Panthers team as he had 6 receptions for 74 yards with one touchdown receiving as well as another score while running the ball. The Panthers are also allowing the third most fantasy points to tight ends this season so again, I would keep an open mind on the consistently inconsistent Saints tight end. I wouldn’t worry about Ingram having another fumbling issue this week as the Panthers have only forced three fumbles all season but I would be a little bit concerned with starting him. In standard scoring formats, the Panthers have allowed the third fewest points to running backs. They are also just one of just seven teams to allow three touchdowns or less.

I definitely wouldn’t play Hightower as his reliability is dependent upon Ingram holding on to the football. Jonathan Stewart hasn’t been a model of production this season but the Saints are a good opponent for him to be playing. The Panthers last three opponents were against teams in the top 15 of fewest fantasy points given up to the running back. This week Stewart will be able to exhale against a Saints defense allowing the sixth most fantasy points to the position. I under no circumstances am starting either defense in this matchup. Enjoy this game as it should be an exciting kickoff to week 11.

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