June 25, 2018
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Panthers return to the scene of the Saints

By Joseph Person, The Charlotte Observer

In 2011, a Panthers team with a beat-up defense rolled into New Orleans in Week 17 with some late-season momentum and limped out following one of the worst defensive performances in team history.

The Saints added insult to the injuries by keeping quarterback Drew Brees and their other starters in the game through the fourth quarter to pursue individual records in New Orleans’ 45-17 win.

The Panthers haven’t forgotten.

For the second season in a row, the Panthers (6-9) will head to New Orleans (7-8) riding a mini-hot streak for a New Year’s weekend finale against their NFC South rivals. The rivalry grew some teeth with the Saints’ Week 17 actions and the offseason revelation that they had targeted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in their bounty program.

Throw in the fact that Carolina players believe they’re playing for coach Ron Rivera’s job, and you have a team that should be plenty stoked Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had a hamstring injury and didn’t play in the game at New Orleans last season. Doesn’t matter.

“I always have that game in the back of my mind, how they did us last year. All the records they broke, that’ll motivate us,” Munnerlyn said. “If we win this game and keep our coaches around, that’s a key, too.”

The revenge theme came up before the teams’ Week 2 game in Charlotte. At the team hotel the night before the Panthers’ 35-27 victory, Rivera’s message was this: “If you don’t like it, go out and do something about it.”

The Panthers did, racking up 463 yards and intercepting Brees twice, including a first-quarter pick that safety Charles Godfrey returned for a touchdown.

Carolina’s players didn’t like what the Saints did last season, finishing with a franchise-record 617 yards, the most given up by the Panthers in team history.

What about Rivera?

“Did I like it? No, I didn’t. But there’s nothing that can be said. It just has to be done,” he said. “So if you don’t like what’s going on, go out and make it happen.”

Without suspended head coach Sean Payton, suspended interim coach Joe Vitt and with the Bountygate distractions still fresh, the Saints lost their first four games and appeared to be on the fast track to irrelevancy. But Brees rallied the Saints, who knocked off previously unbeaten Atlanta on Nov. 11 during a stretch in which they won five of six games.

New Orleans beat Dallas 34-31 last weekend in an overtime game, but was eliminated from playoff contention when Minnesota defeated Houston.

Rivera said this is a different team than the one the Panthers faced in September.

“I think they’re getting breaks. I think they’re making plays. A great example is the Dallas game. They made some big plays offensively, defensively and special teams,” Rivera said. “Did they have some distractions early in the year? Probably. But I think the one constant has been Drew Brees. Drew is trying to lead that team and do things to help that football team get better.”

Brees needs 219 yards to become the first quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford also could accomplish the feat with 305 yards against Chicago.

But Brees doesn’t play defense.

The Saints are last in the league in total defense, giving up 434 yards a game. After shutting out Tampa Bay in Week 15, the Saints allowed the Cowboys’ Tony Romo to throw for 416 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception, last week in Dallas.

Rivera said the Saints have played better of late under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the former St. Louis coach. But Sunday’s game likely will come down to whether the Panthers’ eighth-ranked defense can keep Brees in check, as they did in Week 2.

Brees said in September that the Saints weren’t chasing records last season against the Panthers, but trying to stay sharp for the playoffs.

That’s not a factor this season. But Brees is nearing another passing record, and here come the Panthers.

“I don’t think anybody would be happy with that,” Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said of the game last season in New Orleans. “Every time we play the Saints it’s going to be a tough game. They’ve got a good quarterback and a good defense. So it’s always going to be a nail-biter and come down to the end.”

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