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What to watch: Panthers vs. Saints

Posted Oct 8, 2011

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera can reference his playing days with the Chicago Bears when it comes to division rivalries, recalling epic struggles in the "Black and Blue" division.

"There is a little something extra there," Rivera said.

That's certainly the case in the NFC South.

The Panthers will continue their effort to climb the ranks Sunday when they open division play against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium.

While the Panthers finished last in the division last season with a 2-14 record, the other three teams all won 10 or more games, just the second time that's happened since the Houston Texans made their NFL debut in 2002 and created the current set-up of eight four-team divisions.

This season, all four NFC South teams lost on Kickoff Weekend, but since then New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Atlanta are a combined 7-0 in non-division games.

"It's a heck of a challenge. There's an opportunity for three teams in this division to have 10 wins again," Rivera said. "One of the big reasons why we drafted Cam Newton is that we felt like we had to find a franchise quarterback. Look at the other three quarterbacks in our division; they're all tremendous football players."

Newton has quickly renewed hope for the Panthers, but they'll enter this game in last place in the division. Here are some keys if they hope to get out of the cellar.

IT'S NEVER A BREES: Saints quarterback Drew Brees ranks second in the NFL in passing yards and is one of four quarterbacks with double-digits passing touchdowns.

That's nothing new.

Brees, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009, is one of just two quarterbacks in league history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in five consecutive seasons. He's well on his way to No. 6.

"He's tough," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "He knows what he's doing out there."

Brees did toss a career-high 22 interceptions last season and has thrown four already this season. Getting a pick or two would be huge for the Panthers, but it won't be easy.

"He puts the ball in spots where nobody can get it but his receivers," Munnerlyn said. "I remember a play last year where I thought I was going to get an interception, but he threw it in the dirt. I was thinking, ‘Man, another quarterback would have thrown it right to me.'"


NEW WEAPON: After selecting running back Mark Ingram in the first round of the draft, the Saints traded versatile back Reggie Bush in the preseason.

Another move, however, has had a greater impact so far. Ingram leads the team in rushing, but running back Darren Sproles - signed as an unrestricted free agent - leads the Saints in receiving yards, has more than 100 rushing yards and has returned a punt for a touchdown.

"They've reloaded with a guy that in some ways is probably better than the guy that left," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "They've got a lot of weapons that we've got to figure out a way to stop."

Sproles sparkled in a similar role in San Diego, so Rivera does at least have some familiarity with him. Sproles' speed, however, is hard to gameplan for.


RENEWED WEAPON: No one is going to shut down the Saints offense, so the Panthers need to fight fire with fire.

Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith is as fiery as they come.

"I think his heart is about twice the size of a normal person," Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey said. "He's definitely one of the best players out there and is playing at a high level right now. We expect him to have a big game."

Smith has returned to his big-game ways so far this season, with three 150-yard receiving efforts already. The Saints have been susceptible to the pass play, giving up 254 passing yards and two passing touchdowns per game on average.


SCOREBOARD: Smith has gotten the Panthers close to the end zone countless times but hasn't reached the end zone since Week 1.

That's been a theme for the Panthers offense to date – one that can't continue if Carolina intends to pull off the upset.

"We can't quite pinpoint what the issue is, but we've got to fix it," running back DeAngelo Williams said. "We can't miss our opportunities in the red zone because of the offense they have over there."


SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES: Williams believes the offense will convert in the red zone, setting the stage for a different difference-maker.

"With their quick-strike offense and our quick-strike offense," Williams said, "I think it ultimately will come down to special teams."

All three of the Panthers' losses have been by a touchdown or less. In two of them, including last week's loss at Chicago, the opposition returned a punt for a touchdown.

Better coverage – especially with Sproles in the picture – is essential, and it would help the cause if the Panthers could spring their first big return of the season.