2012 NFL Week 17 Breakdown: Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints

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The Panthers travel to New Orleans this afternoon. Both teams are out of the playoff race yet have played well recently. Each squad faces major questions regarding their leadership moving forward.

For Carolina two straight years beginning the season 2-8 has minimized the effect of strong play down the stretch. Last season, the Panthers won four of six to wrap up the season 6-10. This year they have gone 4-1 over the last five weeks and stand at 6-9. Second year coach Ron Rivera's future is dangling in the wind for a franchise that already dismissed their general manager and special team's coach. Carolina's 1-12 mark in games decided by seven points or less under Rivera does not give a new GM a lot of reason to keep the current regime around.

What may keep Rivera employed, however, is the stellar play of Cam Newton. During the last five games the second year quarterback has averaged more than 300 yards a game of offense while contributing 14 touchdowns and throwing just one interception. Newton has completed 61-percent of his throws over the last five games and helped Carolina win three straight games for the first time since 2009.

New Orleans faces the question of where to go after a lost season. Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the year because of his involvement in the bounty scandal. If Payton returns, he will jump back into the fray with quarterback Drew Brees who has posted tremendous numbers with little support this season. Brees leads the NFL in touchdown passes and yards through the air while New Orleans can neither run the ball effectively nor stop anybody. The Saints are behind only Denver, New England and Houston in points scored. Those three teams represent the top three seeds in the AFC playoffs.

Meanwhile, New Orleans rushing offense ranks 24th in the league while their defense allows 40 more yards per game than any other team in the league.

If Dallas falls to Washington tonight it would not be surprising if Cowboys owner Jerry Jones makes a major play for Payton. The NFL voided his contract, and in a market where up to 10 teams could be seeking a new coach, Payton will be the most desired candidate. He has gone 62-34 in six seasons with New Orleans including a Super Bowl victory three years ago. Payton took over a franchise coming off of a 3-13 campaign, that had not won 10 games or more in six seasons, and had qualified for the playoffs twice since 1992. He went 10-6 in his first season, suffered one losing year out of six, and won ten or more games four times.

New Orleans beat Dallas in a game the Cowboys needed last week. Carolina can avoid double digits defeats for the first time in three years with a win today. The Saints pressing issue is holding onto their coach. Carolina's head coach has rallied to a point that he can argue to keep his job.

Ed. Note: Payton has reportedly agreed to stay with the Saints.