Panthers at Saints -- Week 17

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans (indoors, turf)

When: Sunday, 1 p.m. (Fox)

Spread: Saints by 5 ½

Records: Saints (7-8; NFC South 3-2); Panthers (6-9; NFC South 2-3)

Past Results: Two most recent meetings -- Sept. 16, 2012: Panthers won 35-27 in Charlotte, N.C.; Jan. 1, 2012: Saints won 45-17 in New Orleans. Series record: Carolina leads 18-17 after snapping a four-game losing streak to New Orleans earlier this year.

What matters: Not much, unless you believe momentum carries over from one season to the next. The Saints began the year hoping to become the first team to reach the Super Bowl in its hometown. The Panthers expected to contend for a playoff berth after a promising rookie season for QB Cam Newton. Instead, the two teams combined to lose 11 of their first 14 games and will be done for the year after Sunday. If the Saints win, they will gain sole possession of second place in the division. A loss would drop them into a tie with Carolina and possibly Tampa Bay at 7-9, and through tiebreakers, guarantee them a third-place schedule. Both teams come in hot. The Saints can win three in a row for the second time this year and reach .500 for the second time. The Panthers have won four of their last five and can surpass last year’s 6-10 record.

Who matters: Saints QB Drew Brees leads the NFL in TD passes (39) and passing yards (4,781), and is tied for the lead in interceptions (18). If he plays his third consecutive clean game, he can avoid that interceptions mark -- the primary reason he was not selected to the Pro Bowl -- and hold on to his advantage in the positive categories. Brees broke Dan Marino's single-season passing record of 5,084 yards last year, finishing with 5,476. Tom Brady also broke Marino's mark last season, finishing with 5,235 yards. Brees needs 304 yards on Sunday to once again surpass Marino's old record, which stood for 27 years. By the end of the day, Brees figures to own three of the NFL’s five largest single-season passing totals (he also passed for 5,069 yards in 2008).

Key matchupsBrees vs. the Panthers secondary. Brees threw two interceptions at Carolina this September, including an awful one from his own end zone that safety Charles Godfrey returned for a 9-yard score and another that LB Jon Beason picked off. Those were the only interceptions of the year for both players, and Beason, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is on injured reserved. Brees figures to have a big day operating against a banged-up secondary. Saints D-line vs. Newton. Newton hurt the Saints with his arm and his legs in the first meeting, completing 14 of 20 passes for 253 yards and rushing 13 times for 71 yards. Saints DE Will Smith said the Saints tried to do too much to combat the Panthers’ read option style and will fare better with a simplified approach this time. The Saints certainly had no answer for either Newton or Washington’s spread QB Robert Griffin III in the first two games of the season.

Injuries of note: The Saints won't have starting CB Jabari Greer (concussion) and RB Pierre Thomas (knee), who had his only 100-yard game of the year vs. the Panthers.

Inside stuff: This could be the last game in New Orleans for several long-time key members of the defense. DE Will Smith, a full-time starter for the last seven years and fourth on the Saints’ all-time sacks list, could be let go for salary cap reasons, as could DT Sedrick Ellis, who has started since being the No. 7 overall pick in the 2008 draft. LB Scott Shanle, who started in New Orleans from 2006-11, almost certainly will be gone after being a healthy scratch the last seventh games. Jonathan Vilma, a starter since arriving in 2008, could be history, too. He lost his spot at MLB to Atlanta import Curtis Lofton and has put up underwhelming numbers at WLB since returning from a knee injury.

Connections: Saints secondary coach Ken Flajole was the linebackers coach for Carolina from 2003-08. Ellis and Panthers C Ryan Kalil were teammates at USC.

Stat you should know: The Saints and Panthers are the only two teams that have lost to Kansas City and the only two teams that have beaten Atlanta. That’s a nice capsule of their disappointing seasons.

Record watch: Although they don’t like to talk about it, the Saints really want to avoid the stigma of allowing more yards in a season than any team in NFL history. The magic number is 281, and every New Orleans opponent has gained at least 283 yards. It would be embarrassing for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose first year after getting fired as St. Louis head coach has not gone as planned, and for interim coach Joe Vitt, who was an assistant on the 1981 Baltimore Colts team that holds the current record. At least Vitt could compare and contrast the two experiences.

Looking ahead: The season ends when the fourth quarter ends. The best the Saints can hope for is the eighth .500 finish in franchise history. A 7-9 record would match their worst mark in the Brees era (2007).

Prediction: Saints 34, Panthers 20

Follow Saints reporter Guerry Smith on Twitter @CBSSaints.