Most reasonably intelligent, rational people wouldn’t expect the Carolina Panthers to beat the New Orleans Saints in Sunday’s regular-season finale.

Obviously, there’s a lot at stake for Carolina–a division title, a first-round playoff bye and a home, postseason game all will belong to the Panthers if they take care of business Sunday.

But here are three important facts that point to why Carolina should fall short in another big game:

1) This is a road game — and the Panthers haven’t exactly distinguished themselves away from Bank of America Stadium. They’ve lost four of their seven out-of-town contests this year. (And just think: If the Panthers lose this week and still hope to reach the Super Bowl, they’ll have to play five consecutive road games to do it, including the last two regular-season contests.)

2) This is an NFC South game — and despite having one of the best regular seasons in franchise history, the Panthers have split against the other two division teams, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The Panthers beat New Orleans here in Charlotte on Oct. 19, so let’s just say they’re due to lose.

3) This defense is hurting – and, no, I’m not just talking about the major health concerns with starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and Damione Lewis (shoulder), which were a major reason the Panthers gave up 300 rushing yards in last week’s critical loss to the New York Giants. If Kemoeatu and Lewis are absent (or just injured) during Sunday’s game, that’s going to limit Carolina’s pass rush against one of the NFL’s most lethal passing threats, quarterback Drew Brees. And like most NFL observers in America, I’m guessing Brees saw what the Giants did to Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas last week. I’m guessing the Saints will be throwing Lucas’ way on Sunday.

Pretty cut and dried, right?

Well, remember all the aforementioned talk about reasonably intelligent, rational people?

I’ve never been accused of being either.

I’m predicting a Carolina victory.

That’s right: It doesn’t make a lick of sense when you start looking at the X’s and O’s and trends. With these Panthers, though, I have to look at the intangibles and go with my gut. And there just seems to be something special about this Carolina team.

In recent years, I’d be the first to say the Panthers would tank in a big game. Those squads – including the talented one Sports Illustrated predicted would win the Super Bowl in its pre-season issue — seemed emotionally unequipped to take those momentous steps forward.

This edition of the Panthers, however, just seems to have a swagger.

Carolina knows it plays the powerful, run-oriented football head coach John Fox loves. It knows it has defensive playmakers, starting with linebacker Jon Beason. And, yes, the way the Panthers played in last week’s loss at a freezing Giants Stadium has to give them supreme confidence heading into the room-temperature Superdome against a team they’ve already shut down.

Does it all make sense? Nah. But that hasn’t stopped me before.

It will be a shootout. Steve Smith goes off and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart run wild.

Final score: Carolina 34, New Orleans 31.

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