CHARLOTTE – Now that they are the only undefeated team in the NFL, the spotlight on the Panthers has reached a new level.
"The hard part is the spotlight is on us," said head coach Ron Rivera, whose team travels to New Orleans in Week 13 with a chance to clinch the NFC South for the third consecutive year. "Everybody wants to talk about everything else than the things I want to talk about.
"I want to talk about getting ready to play the Saints. I know a lot of people want to talk about what the potential could be. The truth of the matter is, you can't get there until you take care of what's next."
Next is a rematch on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET against the Saints, who Carolina defeated 27-22 in Week 3 – a tightly contested game that didn't involve linebacker Luke Kuechly or quarterback Drew Brees (both out with injuries).
Following that loss, New Orleans went on to win four of its next five games, running its record to 4-4. But then came a downward turn. The Saints have lost their last three and dismissed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in the process.
In last week's 24-6 loss at Houston, the typically high-powered Saints failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 2005.
But the Panthers know as well as anyone how explosive the Saints can be at the Superdome, where they are averaging 27.4 points per game this season.
"We need to pay them the respect because of who they are," Rivera said. "They have an offensive head coach (Sean Payton) who is very dynamic and will attack you. They have a quarterback who has been an All-Pro player. He's a competitor, and he's got a bunch of guys that want to win.
"This team is not going to roll over because we are showing up."
The Panthers fully expect a tough challenge against a division rival. Brees expects another close game.
"Who cares what the records are, there's just that rivalry, there's that just kind of understanding that both teams know each other pretty well," Brees said. "It's going to be a four-quarter game, and that's just the way these have gone."
If it goes the Panthers' way, they'll have won the division without having played the Falcons, currently in second place at 6-5. Of course, if the Buccaneers defeat Atlanta earlier in the day, the division title will already belong to Carolina.
"It'd be nice to wrap that up before the last week of the season like the last couple years," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We're in a pretty good spot, and that's the next box we have to check."
LAST TIME THEY PLAYED
View the top photos of Panthers vs. Saints by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.