Key takeaways from Saints-Panthers and Patriots-Ravens in Week 16

Steve Smith Panthers

Sunday's televised double-header saw the New Orleans Saints lose ground in the NFC South to the Carolina Panthers. That was followed by the New England Patriots brushing aside the Baltimore Ravens.

Here are the key takeaways from that action.

New Orleans Saints 13-17 Carolina Panthers: Losing Steve Smith is a major blow for the Panthers

Losing star wide receiver Steve Smith to injury is a major blow to the Panthers' Super Bowl hopes. The speedy veteran left the game early against the Saints, appearing to suffer a knee injury.

Smith was apparently already nursing a finger injury going into the game, according to NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal. If Smith is out for a while, the Panthers will be in serious trouble.

Without Smith and his ability to stretch the field, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knew he could risk single coverage against Carolina's other receivers. That meant he could throw a relentless barrage of blitzes at quarterback Cam Newton.

The result was a largely tepid performance from a one-dimensional Panthers offense. Newton passed for a mere 181 yards and was sacked four times. Meanwhile, the vaunted Carolina ground attack could only muster 81 yards.

Newton did eventually manufacture some big gains with the game on the line. But future opponents are sure to copy Ryan's approach if Smith is not on the field.

New England Patriots 41-7 Baltimore Ravens 7: Lack of talented wide receivers has caught up with the Ravens

It wasn't Joe Flacco not being a full strength, or another dismal performance from Ray Rice that undid the Ravens against the Patriots. Instead, it was a severe lack of talent at the wide receiver position finally catching up with last season's Super Bowl winners.

The Patriots ruthlessly exploited this weakness to shut down Flacco and the Baltimore offense. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used a Two Man coverage scheme to challenge Ravens receivers underneath and provide safety help for deep routes.

The plan worked to perfection because none of Flacco's receivers could win at the line and get free. He spent most of the game waiting and waiting for his targets to beat their coverage, before the New England pass rush closed in.

By the end, Flacco had thrown a pair of interceptions and suffered four sacks. None of his receivers even reached 70 yards.

The Ravens had to regenerate several areas of their team this offseason. General manager Ozzie Newsome did a fine job of compensating for the loss of defensive talent.

But the failure to adequately replace clutch receiver Anquan Boldin has crippled the Baltimore offense.

It's time to respect the New England running game

When Tom Brady directs the offense, running backs are inevitably forgotten. But it is time to start respecting the Patriots' ability to successfully run the ball.

The New England rushing attack is built on a committee approach that gives carries to four different backs. LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden all run behind superbly executed power-based blocking.

The Patriots pull guards around the corner more than any team in the NFL. They also regularly overload their fronts with multiple tight ends to help win the battle in the trenches.

Against the Ravens, the Patriots battered a fearsome defensive front to rush for 142 yards. Blount led the way with 16 rushes for 76 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But in the typical "share and share alike" fashion of the New England ground game, Ridley wasn't far behind. He took the ball 15 times and powered his way to 54 yards.

The Patriots can the run the ball to do more than just keep a defense honest. Their stable of versatile runners and brutal power blocking techniques form a lethal combination that commands respect.

It gives the Patriots the kind of balance that should make them feared in the postseason.

image: © North Carolina National Guard