1:00 PM ET, December 31, 2006
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
Carolina (7-8) at New Orleans (10-5) Sunday 1:00 pm EST
NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) -- The fans in New Orleans will get to celebrate on Sunday in the regular-season finale. Then they will get treated to a home playoff game.
The Saints face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, two weeks before they host a divisional playoff game.
New Orleans sealed a first-round bye when Dallas lost to Philadelphia on Monday.
The Panthers may still have a shot at the last NFC wild-card spot when they take the field, but only if the New York Giants lose at Washington on Saturday night.
If the Giants lose, the Panthers need to beat the Saints and have the Green Bay Packers lose at Chicago on Sunday night.
This scenario would have been unfathomable at the start of the season. The Saints finished in last place in the NFC South with a 3-13 record last season after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina while the Panthers reached the NFC championship game.
The additions of quarterback Drew Brees and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush along with the return of running back Deuce McAllister, who suffered a torn ACL last season, was supposed to improve the Saints. But no one expected rookie coach Sean Payton to guide them to a division title.
The Panthers were picked by many to reach Super Bowl XLI this season. But Carolina has played without starting quarterback Jake Delhomme (sprained thumb ligament) for the last three weeks.
Backup quarterback Chris Weinke attempted just seven passes, but the Panthers snapped a four-game losing streak with a 10-3 win at Atlanta last week. DeShaun Foster and rookie DeAngelo Williams combined to rush for 184 yards and Carolina limited the Falcons to eight first downs and 177 total yards.
Bush rushed for a season-high 126 yards and a touchdown and McAllister added 108 yards and a score as the Saints rolled to a 30-7 victory over the New York Giants last week. New Orleans held the Giants to 142 total yards and six first downs.
Bush has rushed for 545 yards and caught 86 passes for 729 yards this season. McAllister eclipsed 1,000 yards (1,057) for the fourth time and Brees leads the NFC with a quarterback rating of 96.1, completing 64 percent of his passes for 4,372 yards and 26 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
The Panthers posted a 21-18 victory over the Saints in the first meeting on October 1.
Delhomme hit Drew Carter with a four-yard touchdown pass and Foster scored on a 43-yard run in the fourth quarter to lead Carolina.
Brees completed 28-of-38 passes for 349 yards without a turnover. His favorite target was rookie Marques Colston, who had five catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.
A seventh-round pick from Hofstra, Colston has 70 catches for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns.
More from ESPN.com
Hornsby: Offseason fixes for Saints
What changes can the Saints make to return to the playoffs next season? Neil Hornsby identifies three areas of focus as the team looks to rebound from its disappointing 2014 season.
Newton: 'Classless' to cheer Manziel injury
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said it was "classless" that fans cheered Sunday when Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel was injured in the first half.
Falcons WRs to CB Lewis: Back up trash talk
Atlanta Falcons receivers Roddy White and Harry Douglas had some choice words for New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis following the Falcons' 30-14 victory on Sunday.
Panthers beat Browns, move into 1st place
Cam Newton threw for one touchdown and ran for another, and the Carolina Panthers defeated the Cleveland Browns 17-13 on Sunday to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
Brees will test Carolina secondary
The Saints have had an unbelievable year as they gear toward the playoffs, while the Panthers have been disappointing throughout the season. Saints head coach Sean Payton will rely on QB Drew Brees and the quick, controlled passing attack to set up the run against a Panthers defense that will focus on shutting down run lanes and attacking the pocket in passing situations. Brees exploited this defense in Week 4.
The Panthers will try to generate yards on the ground, while attacking through the air to both Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson to take pressure off QB Chris Weinke. Defensively, the Saints must do a better job in this divisional rematch of controlling Smith, while containing RBs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams.
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New Orleans Saints
|Avg Points Allowed||19.1||20.1|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||CAR|
|Rush Yds Allowed||CAR|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Carolina leads 7-5|
|Oct 1, 2006||CAR 21, NO 18|
|Dec 18, 2005||CAR 27, @NO 10|
|Sep 11, 2005||CAR 20, NO 23|
|Jan 2, 2005||CAR 18, NO 21|
|Dec 5, 2004||CAR 32, @NO 21|
|Oct 26, 2003||CAR 23, @NO 20|
|Oct 5, 2003||CAR 19, NO 13|
|Dec 29, 2002||CAR 10, @NO 6|
|Nov 10, 2002||CAR 24, NO 34|
|Dec 2, 2001||CAR 23, @NO 27|
|Oct 14, 2001||CAR 25, NO 27|