Saints at Panthers, Patriots at Ravens - NFL preview

Sunday's NFL schedule features two critical clashes between teams vying to make the playoffs.

The Carolina Panthers host the New Orleans Saints in an NFC South decider. That is followed by the New England Patriots travelling to Baltimore hoping for revenge against the Ravens.

Here are the big questions from this pivotal double-header.

Will the Saints again suffer without the comforts of home?

This is the wrong time for the 10-4 Saints to be on the road. All of their defeats this season have come away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

While their fifth-ranked offense averages 25.6 points per game, the Saints have been stymied on their travels. In their four defeats, quarterback Drew Brees and company have managed 27, 20, 7 and 16 points.

Those last three figures represent an alarming dip and have to concern head coach Sean Payton ahead of facing the second-ranked Carolina defense.

Payton will likely try to slow down the swarming Panthers with a host of different formations. But the real key will be keeping Brees clean in the pocket.

The Saints couldn't do that last week against the St. Louis Rams. Defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn regularly took inside moves and stayed in the face of Brees.

If he can't step up in the pocket, the pint-sized passer soon struggles. Carolina will certainly turn defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson loose on stunts and twists.

But they will also rely on imposing tackles Dwan Edwards and Star Lotulelei to crush the pocket from the inside and push blockers back into Brees.

If the Saints can't change their personnel and execute plays with the speed they manage at home, Brees will be exposed and the Panthers will win.

Can Tom Brady escape the Ravens' Pass Rush?

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady should expect a heavy beating from a fearsome pass rush in Baltimore. The Ravens operate one of the best pressure schemes in the NFL and are sure to make hitting Brady their top priority.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his senior assistant Steve Spagnuolo will throw a toxic brew of blitz pressures at the AFC East leaders.

The Ravens have always been better than most at getting to Brady. They are even more dangerous this year thanks to the addition of players like Elvis Dumervil, who is terrorising quarterbacks.

Dumervil and the likes of Terrell Suggs will be confident they can rattle Brady, who has been sacked 37 times this season. Meanwhile, the Patriots will be keen for revenge after last season's playoffs, when the Ravens left New England with a 28-13 win and the AFC title.

But if Brady can't escape the rush, the Patriots will be disappointed again.

This pair of crunch games can decide two divisions and could even end the playoff hopes of last season's Super Bowl winners.

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