Saints at Panthers a big match in messy NFC South on Thursday night

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Back in 2010, New Orleans went 11-5 and Seattle was 7-9. But the Saints were a wild card for the playoffs and the Seahawks won their division.

So off to the Great Northwest the Saints traipsed, where they were dismissed from the postseason by the Seahawks.

Now, it's New Orleans — or any team from the struggling NFC South — that could wind up benefiting from the NFL's setup that rewards all division winners.

For Thursday night's matchup with Carolina, the Saints (No. 18 in AP Pro32), are 2 1-2-point favorites over the Panthers (No. 21) in this, uh, battle for NFC South supremacy.

Carolina has played a difficult schedule that includes losses to Seattle, Green Bay, Baltimore and Pittsburgh and a tie with Cincinnati. The Panthers (3-4-1) lead the sector by percentage points over New Orleans (3-4), which has won every home game and lost all the road contests. With Atlanta (2-6) and Tampa Bay (1-6) not in the mix, the division looks like a two-team crawl to Week 17.

"You know, winning your division is going to get you a home game in the playoffs," Saints tackle Zach Strief said.

"Certainly there's all sorts of goals and there's big picture, small picture and I think what we've tried to do is really focus on the smallest picture, and that's our own team getting better," Saints coach Sean Payton added. "As much is said and written week to week about how the league's doing, who's playing well, who's not, if you can really focus on how to improve yourself, I think that handles itself."

Can the Saints handle a huge intradivision road challenge? We think so, barely.

SAINTS, 28-27

No. 8 San Diego (plus 2) at No. 17 Miami

We know all about the long trip. Also know the Chargers are the better team.

BEST BET and UPSET SPECIAL: CHARGERS, 24-20

No. 7 Indianapolis (minus 3) at No. 22 New York Giants, Monday night

We know all about the rested Giants coming off a bye. Also know the Colts are the better team.

COLTS, 34-27

No. 2 Arizona (plus 4) at No. 4 Dallas

Impossible to gauge the Romo factor. The Cardinals are finding ways each week.

CARDINALS, 23-21

No. 1 Denver (minus 3) at No. 3 New England

Anywhere else but Foxborough, Peyton is THE MAN. At Gillette Stadium, it's Brady in a shootout.

PATRIOTS, 34-33

No. 14 Baltimore (pick-em) at No. 13 Pittsburgh

As nasty a rivalry as you'll find, and a game with tons of meaning.

RAVENS, 28-27

No. 29 Jacksonville (plus 11 1-2) at No. 12 Cincinnati

Don't see either offense doing much.

BENGALS, 20-10

No. 31 Tampa Bay (plus 6 1-2) at No. 20 Cleveland

Browns must get their offense on track. Bucs must get everything on track.

BROWNS, 16-10

No. 23 (tie) Washington (plus 2 1-2) at No. 25 Minnesota

Redskins will bring the heat against Bridgewater like they did against Romo.

REDSKINS, 22-16

No. 5 Philadelphia (minus 2) at No. 19 Houston

Eagles know they blew it at Arizona and will make some amends here.

EAGLES, 27-23

No. 30 New York Jets (plus 9 1-2) at No. 15 Kansas City

Michael Vick goes against the coach who helped him resurrect career, Andy Reid.

CHIEFS, 27-13

No. 26 St. Louis (plus 9 1-2) at No. 11 San Francisco

Rams simply don't have the manpower to challenge rested Niners.

49ERS, 30-16

No. 32 Oakland (plus 15) at No. 10 Seattle

Time for the Seahawks to make a statement? If not, might be time to worry about them.

SEAHAWKS, 20-3


2014 RECORD: Against spread: This week (5-9-1); Season (58-57-4). Straight up: This week (9-6); Season (78-41-1)

Best Bet: 5-3 against spread, 6-2 straight up.

Upset special: 6-2 against spread, 4-4 straight up.


AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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