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Thursday Night Football Preview: A Battle in the Ugly NFC South

Division rivals New Orleans and Carolina clash for the first time this year. Who wins?

About halfway into the season, it can't be said that we have a clear picture of who the New Orleans Saints really are. Not that we have a clear picture of who just about any team in the NFL is; it's amazing to me how many times we've seen a team that's been more or less written off come out and achieve a statement victory over a contender. I'm still in disbelief that my hometown Steelers manhandled the Colts the way they did last week, and you may have forgotten that the Saints put the for-real Packers away Sunday just six games after dropping their season opener to the lowly Falcons.

Likewise, the Panthers have had their ups and downs in 2014, and lately it seems like it's been more downs than ups. After starting the season 2-0 with a tight win over the Buccaneers (minus Cam Newton under center) and a 24-7 stifling of the Lions, who have the best defense in football per our Defensive Net Expected Points (or NEP) metric, they've since gone 1-4-1. That's in large part thanks to a pretty brutal stretch of opponents that included Baltimore, Green Bay, and Seattle, all of whom rank in the top half of the league in nERD, as well as Pittsburgh, a team that can be one of the most potent offenses in the NFL.

Though two of their losses were at the hands of Dallas and Detroit (fourth and sixth in the NFL by nERD, respectively), the Saints also lost games to Atlanta (22nd) and Cleveland (26th). And two of their wins came against basement-dwellers Minnesota and Tampa Bay (24th and 31st), the latter being a six-point victory over one of the worst teams in football.

It's difficult to put too much stock in strength of schedule, but I'm not willing to declare the Saints the clear favorites of this matchup, even though numberFire's own metrics indicate that New Orleans is the better team - they're 10th in the power rankings, while Carolina is 25th. An offense led by Drew Brees is always going to keep you in games, but anytime he's outside the Superdome, all bets are off.

So what do we make of this matchup? We've got two competitive teams with sub-.500 records looking to turn things around. Who has a better chance of righting the ship this week?

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