The 5-10 Carolina Panthers will try to play spoilers in their season finale on Sunday against NFC South rival New Orleans. First-year coach Matt Rhule said after last week’s win at Washington he wants the Panthers to learn how to win late in the season rather than worry about where they will pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Saints currently sit at 11-4 and are in second place in the NFC standings behind 12-3 Green Bay. To get the No. 1 overall seed and the first-round bye that accompanies it, New Orleans will have to defeat Carolina on Sunday while hoping for Green Bay and Seattle to lose their games.
The Saints are coming off one of their most dominant performances of the season -- a 52-33 rout of the Vikings on Christmas night. New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara tied the NFL record with six rushing touchdowns while also running for a career-high 155 yards on 22 carries.
The Panthers are coming off their first win in over a month after a 20-13 road victory over Washington in Week 16. Carolina defeated Washington despite being out-gained by more than 100 yards (386-280). The Panthers took advantage of four takeaways from a defense that is one of the NFL’s youngest. Carolina has been starting four rookies on defense, including defensive tackles Derrick Brown and Bavvion Roy, outside linebacker Jeremy Chinn and undrafted cornerback Myles Hartsfield.
New Orleans ranks among the top 12 teams in the league this year in giveaways (17), while Carolina has 22 takeaways on defense so far this year.
Outside of playing spoiler to New Orleans’ bid for the No. 1 seed, Sunday’s game will also be important because it will likely determine where the Panthers will pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Currently, at 5-10, Carolina is slotted for the No. 9 pick in the first round.
The Panthers could still pick as high as third depending on who wins and loses in Week 17.
CBS Sports’ latest mock draft has the Panthers selecting Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the No. 9 spot in the first round. Carolina is considered a weakness for the Panthers; starting tight end Ian Thomas has only 19 catches in 15 games this season.
Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey has been ruled out again due to a thigh injury, according to NBC Sports. McCaffrey -- who was named an All-Pro in 2019 -- will miss his 13th game this season due to an injury. McCaffrey’s backup, Mike Davis (ankle sprain), is listed as doubtful for the finale.
Undrafted rookie running back Rodney Smith will likely get the bulk of the carries against the Saints, with Trenton Cannon and Curtis Samuel helping to share the load