Saints, Panthers match-up ideal playoffs lead-in

BARRY WILNER
Last updated 07:54 21/12/2013

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The New Orleans Saints know all about big NFL games in December - and beyond. The Carolina Panthers once did, but that was nearly a decade ago, when they had few of their current players.

On Monday (NZ time), they meet in Charlotte in the kind of matchup the NFL covets around Christmas. They both have 10-4 records, tied for the NFC South lead.

"Your No 1 goal every year is to win your division, first and foremost, and we have the opportunity to do that this weekend," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "It's going to take our best performance in order to get it done."

Not only will the game likely determine the division champion but also a first-round bye in the NFC. And playing at home is of particular interest to these two teams during the postseason.

The Saints are 7-0 at the Superdome; the Panthers are 6-1 at home, with their only loss coming in a close defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in the season opener. Seattle merely has the league's best record.

The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since 2008, and quarterback Cam Newton is among several players eager for a trip to the postseason.

"We're looking at it as, 'Why not us?"' Newton said. "... If we do what we have to do. If we win this game, we have our confirmation of being in the playoffs."

There is the added motivation of beating the Saints, who handed Carolina its only loss in the past 10 games.

"We really got embarrassed a couple of weeks ago," Newton said. "This is our opportunity to prove to ourselves that we are who we think we are."

All three other NFC divisions could also be decided.

Start with the NFC East, where things are simpler. If the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Chicago Bears, and the Dallas Cowboys lose to the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia goes from last place to first in one year and clinches. Philly will know before its prime-time kickoff what Dallas did in the afternoon, and a Cowboys win renders this one meaningless for the Eagles, who must win at Dallas next week to take the division.

Both Philadelphia and Dallas come off losses, with the Cowboys' one-pointer against Green Bay the more painful.

Chicago has a one-game lead on the Detroit Lions and a half-game edge on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. Should the Bears and their dynamic offense outscore the Eagles while the Lions and Packers fall, Chicago owns the division title.

The Bears have won the past two meetings, four of the past five and the past two in Philadelphia.

Already into the playoffs, the Seahawks clinch the NFC West and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win over Arizona or a San Francisco loss to Atlanta on Tuesday (NZ time) in the last game at Candlestick Park. Seattle has won 14 straight at home and quarterback Russell Wilson never has lost a game at CenturyLink Field. His 23 victories are the most for a quarterback in his first two seasons.

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The New England Patriots will take their fifth straight AFC East title and earn a 15th playoff berth in 20 years with a victory at Baltimore. It would be coach Bill Belichick's 11th division title, tied with Don Shula for the most since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. And they surely remember what the Ravens did to them twice last season, including in the AFC championship matchup in Foxborough.

"You get a little bit of a rivalry, and then you're always paying attention to what that team's doing," Patriots passer Tom Brady said.

Baltimore earns a playoff spot by winning its last two games. It also has a shot at grabbing the AFC North away from the Cincinnati Bengals, who have led the division pretty much all season. The Ravens have made the postseason in all five previous years with John Harbaugh as coach and Joe Flacco as quarterback.

After seeing how the Minnesota Vikings, minus Adrian Peterson, upset the Eagles last week, the Bengals won't be complacent, especially with Peterson back in the lineup. Cincinnati has won all six home games.

Elsewhere, the Denver Broncos visit Houston, where the Texans have lost 12 straight games. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has 47 touchdown passes, three shy of Brady's season record set six years ago.

Also on Monday (NZ time), it's New York Giants at Detroit, Pittsburgh at Green Bay, Indianapolis at Kansas City, Miami at Buffalo, Oakland at San Diego, Tampa Bay at St. Louis, Tennessee at Jacksonville, Cleveland at New York Jets.

- AP

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