Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told local media Monday afternoon that he planned to watch that night's New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks game with some popcorn and a notepad. So what did he learn from seeing New Orleans get blown out, 34-7?
"They're beatable," Rivera answered Wednesday.
Carolina's coach may have taken some solace in Seattle's rout, but it is unlikely the Saints will have a second straight dud when they host the Panthers Sunday night in a battle of 9-3 NFC South leaders.
The Saints managed just 188 yards against the Seahawks, their lowest output since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees came to New Orleans in 2006. Brees especially struggled in Seattle, finishing with 147 passing yards, his fewest since he played just one series against the Panthers in Week 17 of the 2006 season.
While their embarrassing effort may give them something extra to prove against the Panthers, Rivera claimed the past won't be a factor.
"No, because people play well and come out differently too. It's just a matter of who shows up come Sunday and we won't know until we kick off," Rivera said.
One problem for the Panthers is that kickoff will be in the Superdome in front of a national audience. It will be the third straight prime-time game for the Saints, who are 5-0 at home on Sunday nights in the Payton/Brees era.
New Orleans is also a perfect 6-0 on its home turf this season, where they average 33.2 points per game, vs. an 18.8-point average on the road.
Not only do Brees and the offense click better in the Superdome, but the noise from one of the loudest fan bases in the NFL can cause opposing offenses all sorts of issues.
"You can't use the snap count to your advantage, so you have to find different ways to offset those guys coming off the ball," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said, when asked how his unit would prepare for the noise this week. "It's going to be loud. It's something you have to prepare for."
While the Saints are accustomed to the national spotlight, this is new territory for most of the Panthers. The only time they were flexed into a Sunday night game previously was for a Week 16 contest against the New York Giants in 2008.
That was also the year of Carolina's last playoff appearance, a slump that should be broken this year. But will the Panthers return to the postseason as a wild card, or as a division champion? Sunday night could go a long way in deciding that answer.
"It's very satisfying because of where we came from," Rivera said of the new attention surrounding his team. "As I've said before, it's been a hard four years for a lot of guys in that locker room. It's been a hard two years for myself and a lot of other people as well.
"It is very satisfying to be on a nice little roll, but again there is a lot of work to do."
SERIES HISTORY: 37th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 19-17. Carolina swept the series last year, while New Orleans won both meetings in 2010 and 2011.
--The Panthers, who were already the league's top-ranked scoring defense, were expected to become No. 1 in total yards allowed as well this week, but the Seahawks shutdown of the Saints kept Carolina in the second spot.
As good as the Panthers defense has been, playing potent New Orleans at the Superdome in prime time is a different animal.
"I feel good about it. I'm not going to lie about it," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said, when asked about his unit's top-three rankings. "At the same time, you've got Drew Brees and the Saints offense staring you right in the face."
--The Panthers lead the NFL in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 9-of-28 drives when they have driven inside the Carolina 20-yard line. The Panthers have held their opponents scoreless on a trip to the red zone seven times.
"When we get into the red zone, it's either field goal or turnover -- that's our mindset," linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
Carolina's 32.1 red-zone touchdown percentage is the NFL's best since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002.
--The Panthers lead the NFL in time of possession, averaging 33:10 a game. The Saints are second with a 32:30 average.
--The Panthers have forced a takeaway in a league-high 16 straight games.
--The Panthers have given up 21 points in the first quarter and just two touchdowns in the first half, outscoring opponents 136-67 in the first two quarters.
--The Panthers have outscored opponents 133-41 in the second halves of their nine wins. They have posted second-half shutouts in five wins, including four times in their last five games.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 - Number of winning seasons in the Panthers' 19-year history. With its nine victories, Carolina has clinched its first winning season since 2008.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People want to keep pointing at me, but the truth of the matter is, our defense is playing lights out." - QB Cam Newton, when asked about the Panthers' franchise record eight-game regular season win streak.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Cam Newton has passed for at least one touchdown and run for at least one touchdown in 20 of his 44 career games. The next-most by any QB since 2011 is Patriots QB Tom Brady with six.
--WR Ted Ginn has four receiving touchdowns in 12 games. He had a total of six receiving touchdowns in his previous six seasons and none from 2010-11.
--C Ryan Kalil, who missed 11 games last season with a Lisfranc fracture, was named the Panthers' 2013 Ed Block Courage Award winner. Kalil has returned from surgery to play 786 of Carolina's 800 offensive snaps this season.
--FS Mike Mitchell, who had just two interceptions in his previous four years with the Raiders, is tied for fourth in the league with four interceptions this season.
--K Graham Gano continues to lead the league in touchback percentage. Out of kickers that handle kickoffs full-time, Gano's 78.7 percentage is a good distance from his closest challenger, Denver's Matt Prater, who's at a 72.1 percent clip.
--DE Charles Johnson, who missed two straight games with a sprained knee, returned to a limited practice Wednesday. He is expected to play against the Saints with a knee brace.
--RB DeAngelo Williams, who sat out last week with a bruised quad, returned to limited practice Wednesday. He is expected to play against the Saints.
--LB Chase Blackburn, who has been out since Week 10 with foot injury, returned to a full practice Wednesday.
--TE Ben Hartsock, who has been out since Week 10 with a sprained knee, returned to a limited practice Wednesday.
--G Chris Scott, who has been out since Week 10 with a sprained knee, did not practice Wednesday. He did some work on the side, but it would be a surprise if he returned to play against the Saints.
--LB Jordan Senn, who tweaked a hamstring in the third quarter against the Bucs, did not practice Wednesday. He is in danger of missing the Saints game.
GAME PLAN: The Panthers have split their last four games against the Saints, with Carolina pulling off a sweep last year. Head coach Sean Payton was not on the sideline for those games, though, and New Orleans is as dangerous as ever this season.
It's unlikely quarterback Drew Brees, who struggled Monday night against the Seahawks, will have a second straight disappointing performance, even against the Panthers' stout defense. In his last four games against Carolina, Brees has racked up 1,469 yards and 12 touchdowns vs. five interceptions.
With DE Charles Johnson expected back, the Panthers need to get enough pressure on Brees so that he has to settle for short passes. Carolina's defensive backs were beaten for three deep balls the past two weeks, so they have to do a much better job keeping the receivers in front of them.
Panthers QB Cam Newton has been solid but not spectacular in his starts against the Saints. He has thrown for 883 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions in those four games, but Sunday night will be much different than any game Newton has played against the Saints or even in the NFL. He needs to keep his emotions in check, avoid mistakes and continue to take what defenses give him. If he gets rattled by the Saints' improved defense and the loud Superdome crowd, the Panthers could be in trouble.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Panthers LB Luke Kuechly, who has three interceptions, vs. Saints TE Jimmy Graham, who leads NFL TEs in receptions, yards and touchdowns -- Kuechly, the 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, has shown some flaws in his pass coverage this season. Even if that part of Kuechly's game was rock solid, he would need some help against Graham. The North Carolina native has piled up 988 yards and 12 touchdowns through 12 games and he has had tremendous success against Carolina in the past. Graham has totaled 32 receptions, 412 yards and three touchdowns in his last four games against the Panthers.
--Panthers QB Cam Newton, who has led Carolina in rushing for three straight games, vs. Saints rush defense, which allowed Seattle QB Russell Wilson to gain 47 yards on eight carries Monday night -- Carolina does not want Newton to lead them in rushing most games, but it is hard to argue with the results when he does take off. He is much bigger than Wilson, so Newton's rushing, especially on third downs, could be a big weapon against the Saints' improved defense.
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