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McCaffrey, Kamara figure to play key roles on Monday night

December 16, 2018
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FILE - In this Nov. 18, 2018, file photo, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) pulls in a touchdown reception in front of Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) during the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans. Kamara figures to play a prominent role in the Saints game Monday, Dec. 17, night at Carolina .(AP Photo/Bill Feig, File)
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FILE - In this Nov. 18, 2018, file photo, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) pulls in a touchdown reception in front of Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) during the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans. Kamara figures to play a prominent role in the Saints game Monday, Dec. 17, night at Carolina .(AP Photo/Bill Feig, File)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — There’s been no such thing as a sophomore slump for Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara.

The two NFC South running backs have followed up strong rookie campaigns with even better second seasons for the Panthers and Saints, who’ll meet Monday night in a game with big playoff ramifications for both teams.

McCaffrey has 926 yards rushing and 701 yards receiving. He has a chance to join Roger Craig and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only running backs in NFL history to post 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

Kamara, the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year, has 1,384 yards from scrimmage and needs five scores in the final three weeks for a 20-touchdown season.

“They’re both highly versatile players,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees . “So, great in the run game. They’ve got great instincts and a great feel for making cuts, breaking tackles, just a level of elusiveness that’s pretty unique. And then their ability to catch balls and really be receivers outside the pocket is very unique as well.”

The only difference in the two this season has been in the win-loss column. The Panthers and Saints have been heading in opposite directions since early November.

Carolina (6-7) has lost five straight — despite 747 total yards and eight touchdowns from McCaffrey during that span — and is in dire need of a win to keep its slim playoff hopes alive . Kamara and backfield mate Mark Ingram have New Orleans (11-2) out in front in the NFC and looking to stay a step ahead of the Los Angeles Rams in the battle for the top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Both teams will be counting on their all-purpose backs down the stretch.

“Oh man, he’s a heck of a player,” McCaffrey said of Kamara.

McCaffrey said he spends some of his off days studying film on Kamara and looking at some of what he does to see if he can incorporate it into his own game.

“It’s been fun watching him and it’s kind of cool, a lot of similarities obviously in our game,” McCaffrey said. “He’s a good one to watch.”

McCaffrey was Carolina’s first-round pick in 2017, while Kamara slipped to the Saints in the third round.

Kamara said he and McCaffrey do a lot of the same things, yet still have different styles. But he too keeps an eye on what other backs from the Class of 2017 are doing in the NFL, including McCaffrey.

“Christian is a great back,” Kamara said. “We came in in the same class so I think it is just respect for all backs that we came in with whether it’s Christian or Leonard (Fournette) or Dalvin (Cook) or anybody. We all kind of watch each other. We talk in the offseason. He’s having a great year and definitely doing a lot of good things. So I see it.”

McCaffrey and Kamara have joined Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley as the league has put added value in recent years on versatile running backs.

Saints coach Sean Payton said that with the formations and the running schemes in the NFL that have begun to resemble college football in terms of zone reads and run-pass option plays “those type of players are a handful.”

“He’s very gifted in the passing game, he’s got exceptional vision, and I think he runs with good balance and power,” Payton said of McCaffrey.

“You see him in goal line situations, short-yardage situations. He’s a guy that’s very difficult to defend in space, and I think that’s the same way Alvin is. I think that those are explosive guys that can change the field position very quickly.”

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