CHARLOTTE — Welcome to an early clash for the top spot in the NFC South. Or something.
The Saints and Panthers are both 1-0 at the moment, having done it in very different ways last week.
The Saints hammered the Packers, completely stifling Aaron Rodgers in a 38-3 win. The Panthers had much more difficulty with the Jets, but definitely showed some encouraging signs, particularly in terms of pressuring the quarterback.
It was the start that both teams needed for a lot of reasons, and here are five things to watch in Sunday's first Saints-Panthers matchup of the season.
Finding a good nickel is a lot harder than fishing between the couch cushions for some change.
And the Panthers are finding out on the fly how hard it can be to find a guy who is much more than just a third cornerback.
They knew they'd have to adjust at the position the first two weeks anyway as A.J. Bouye finished up last year's suspension (it's kind of a moot point though, because a preseason injury might have kept him out these two weeks anyway).
But when Myles Hartsfield suffered a dislocated wrist last week and landed on IR, the Panthers had to adjust with a thin and young group.
They have some options, and for the last two weeks, defensive coordinator Phil Snow has mentioned possibilities including rookie corner Jaycee Horn, veteran safety Juston Burris, and do-it-all defensive back Sean Chandler.
"We're going to do it by committee based on calls," Snow said, in the short version of a complicated question.
And the job itself is extremely complicated.
While outside corners are the ones who get most of the attention, playing inside demands much more of players (which is why the job generally goes to a veteran who understands the complexities. A guy such as Bouye).
"A nickel has to do a lot of different things," Snow explained. "He's got to be able to play the run, he's got to be able to blitz, and he's also got to be able to cover. So you're talking about a special guy who can do all those things. . . .
"There's a lot to the nickel position. In this league, it's actually a starting position."
Given the current construction of the Panthers roster, that's tough, with Donte Jackson and three kids (first-round pick Horn, 2020 seventh-rounder Stantley Thomas-Oliver III and rookie Keith Taylor Jr.). They're expected to call veteran Rashaan Melvin up from the practice squad for the week to add some depth, and they have flexibility at safety if they need to slide Burris in there.
Horn's a talented enough player that he could do all those things, but it's a lot to ask from a young player if he didn't have Horn's particular kind of gravity.
PLAYING FOR THE CITY
The Saints were clearly fired up last week, playing on a higher emotional level as they thrashed the Packers. They were clearly hoping to give their fanbase something to latch onto, as the folks back home continue to clean up after Hurricane Ida.
The Panthers have some experience in being on the receiving end of that, as the 2005 Saints rolled in here in the first game after Hurricane Katrina, and stunned the Panthers in the opener.
The Panthers would go onto the NFC Championship Game that year, and the Saints would go on to lose 13 of their next 15 games.
Granted, that was a much worse Saints team than this one (it was the last of the Jim Haslett era), but eventually, the realities of being displaced took a toll. The 2005 Saints set up shop in San Antonio for the entire year, and played home games there and in front of minuscule crowds in LSU's mammoth Tiger Stadium.
The Saints are hoping to get back home soon after basing their operations in Fort Worth at TCU, but they have another week of living out of a hotel before they can get back.
At a certain point, that wears on the people who play football, and we'll see Sunday if the Saints can match last week's level.
TWO OF A KIND
Much has been made this week about the similarities between Saints running back Alvin Kamara and Panthers counterpart Christian McCaffrey.
Their unique skills as runners and receivers make it an easy comparison.
"A guy like Alvin would break a tackle, and then all of a sudden that simple checkdown is turning into 15, 20 yards," Panthers tight end and former Saint Dan Arnold said. "That's the same thing Christian can do. Christian is going to make that one guy miss in space at a high, high probability.
"It's just the simple stuff like that that's going to keep an offense rolling."
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule praised Kamara for his "elite, Hall of Fame-level contact balance."
Beyond his physical gifts, McCaffrey has a knack for boiling things down to their essence and expressing them simply.
Asked what that quality meant, McCaffrey replied: "When you get hit, it's not going down. That's kind of it."
That's basically it, and the two backs have shown that tackling them is easier said than done.
In addition to the complications of being displaced from their homes and facility, the Saints have a lot of other stuff going on.
They put a pair of defensive starters on IR this week (defensive end Marcus Davenport and linebacker Kwon Alexander), and they've already ruled out center Erik McCoy for the week. They're calling cornerback Marshon Lattimore a game-time decision after he had surgery last week to repair a broken thumb. If he plays, it would likely have to be with a large cast.
On top of all that, they're going to be short-handed on the coaching side, with seven assistants staying behind on the trip after testing positive for COVID-19.
They still have one of the best head coaches in the game, and they still have an aggressive defense and a deep and talented offensive line. But they're definitely being forced to adjust this week.
EATING A W
The Panthers coaching staff was still working at the college level in 2019, so they don't have first-hand memories of Jameis Winston's remarkable (in a lot of ways) final season with the Buccaneers.
That was the year he threw 33 touchdown passes, but also 30 interceptions. Last week, he barely looked like the same player, playing efficiently with five touchdowns and no picks against the Packers.
"Jameis is a good player," Snow said. "He can really throw the football; he's still got good movement. He's fun to watch.
"He threw a bunch of picks that one year, but he threw a bunch of touchdowns too, now. The first ballgame he threw five touchdowns. He can throw the football, that's not a problem at all."
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The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 26-29. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.