CHARLOTTE – Greg Olsen is as consistent as any player to ever wear a Panthers uniform, but his 2017 season has been sabotaged by starts and stops.
Olsen understands if the offense can't get started Sunday, the season stops.
"It's going to be a challenge for us, but I think we feel good about our matchup, feel good about our plan. It's just a matter of going out and executing," said Olsen, whose first appearance against the NFC South rival Saints this season will come in the first round of the playoffs. "We haven't forgotten how to play. We feel good moving forward."
After dropping both regular season games to the Saints, the Panthers should feel good about their three-time Pro Bowl tight end. Cornerback Daryl Worley predicted Olsen would be "the difference" in round three, and Saints coach Sean Payton said having Olsen in the lineup "is huge" for Carolina.
"He's a game-changing type of player," center Ryan Kalil said. "He makes a huge difference."
Olsen has made a difference against the Saints in recent seasons. In his last three games in the Superdome, he's piled up 25 receptions for 195 yards and a touchdown.
"We've had some luck against them production-wise over the years," Olsen said. "Why? I don't know. I think we've taken advantage of opportunities when they arise."
And therein lies the key – taking advantage. Olsen and the Panthers haven't done it nearly as much during his injury-riddled season, and it's not as easy to do against a Saints defense that ranked last against the pass in 2016 and next-to-last the year before but checks in at No. 15 this season.
This year's worst pass defense, the Buccaneers, held Olsen to three catches for 27 yards in Week 16. Then last week against an upper echelon Falcons defense, Cam Newton tried to feed the ball to his most consistent target but the offense starved. Olsen caught just one pass on nine targets, and the Panthers scored just one offensive touchdown for the second consecutive week.
"I don't make too much of one game," Olsen said. "The reality is that over the last couple of years, Cam and I have been more productive than any tight end/quarterback combo in the whole league. We know what we're doing and we've got a great feel for what each other wants.
"Sometimes things don't go your way; sometimes you just have one of those days. But we've got a lot of confidence in what we've been able to do and what we can still do."
When Newton was a rookie and Olsen was a first-year Panther in 2011, the two successfully hooked up on half their targets, but over the next five seasons – including an unprecedented three consecutive 1,000-yard years for the tight end – they connected on roughly two out of every three targets.
This year, they haven't even connected on half. And taking away Olsen's nine-catch performance against the Packers in Week 15, the duo has converted just 8-of-26 targets.
While this year's numbers could give Panthers fans pause, the Packers game should give them hope within a season where Olsen's pause button has been hit too often.
Olsen was playing in his 160th consecutive game back in Week 2 – 10 seasons worth of games – when he broke his foot on a non-contact play. He missed eight games, returned for one half before shutting it down because of soreness, then sat out the game at New Orleans the next week before playing in the final four.
"They've worked hard the last few weeks just to get back on the same page," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Greg was out for a while and didn't really have an opportunity to work, so they've got to get that familiarity back."
The Saints are plenty familiar with what the Olsen/Newton combination can do when it's at its best, and both players typically back bounce when they're at their worst.
Since being traded from the Bears to the Panthers in 2011, Olsen has caught one or fewer passes 12 times. The next week, he's topped 50 receiving yards nine times and has averaged 4.5 receptions. And when Newton's passer rating is under 60 one week, it's 95.9 on average the next week. Last week, it was a career-low 31.5.
"You're talking about one of the better tight ends in the game," Payton said. "There's a timing and experience factor that goes into his snaps with Cam and their cohesiveness. It's certainly a significant part of the game plan."
This time, unlike the previous two times, it must be a part of the Saints game plan. And if Olsen and Newton are clicking, what does that mean for New Orleans' emerging defense?
"When he's on the field, it brings a whole new element," said safety Colin Jones, who has tried to defend Olsen in practice for six seasons now. "He's the master of finding the open zone or winning leverage that you don't want him to win.
"He's so good at controlling his body and making you feel like you're in position to make a play, but he always comes up with the football."
The Saints must respect that threat at the least and may even try to take it away with their improved defensive backfield.
"We talk about that a lot," Olsen said. "If certain teams come in and want to have a plan – whether that's choking at the line of scrimmage and colliding with me at the line of scrimmage to disrupt routes – that can open up other things.
"We've done a good job over the years of seeing what teams are doing and making good adjustments."
In the past, a defense determined to clamp down on Olsen has been put in a pick-your-poison position, and the Panthers offense has thrived even on quiet days for its tight end. The last couple of games, however, defenses have kept Olsen quiet and not been burned by doing so.
It could be up to the Russell Shepards of the world to make the Saints pay.
"Greg opens it up for everybody. Having a guy like that takes pressure off and enables the rest of the offense to have one-on-one matchups," Shepard said. "We've got to be able to win those matchups.
"We just need to take it to the next level. We need to be as tight-knit, as consistent playmaking group of guys as we possibly can be."
So how will it all play out Sunday?
Will Olsen and Newton be back on the same page, stressing the Saints defense and leading the Panthers to victory? Will Olsen draw so much attention that he'll be kept quiet while his teammates make lots of noise?
Or, will the Saints silence the Panthers for a third time and end Olsen's season of starts and stops once and for all?
"I've enjoyed playing down there," Olsen said. "I've had some good games over the years, but they've got good players and are very well-coached. Nothing is easy. Nothing's free.
"We're going to stick to our plan, stick to what we're good at. We can't all of a sudden become something that we're not. When we're successful, we know what that formula is."