CHARLOTTE – Safety Roman Harper knows that playing against his former team isn't all that important in the grand scheme of things.
"A battle for the division lead, we understand what all is on the table," Harper said. "It's way bigger than me. We're just trying to go out and get this win."
But on a personal level, there is something special about facing the New Orleans Saints, Harper's team for eight seasons. As Saints head coach Sean Payton said, "He was a big part of what we were able to accomplish."
"I'm definitely excited," Harper said. "I'm more excited to see the guys. I know who this team is. I'm still friends with a lot of those guys over there."
Thursday night's matchup for first place in the NFC South will be anything but friendly. And Harper's familiarity with the Saints is something the Panthers hope to take advantage of.
Head coach Ron Rivera said he had a beneficial conversation with Harper about the Saints tendencies.
"We have (talked), and it's been very enlightening," Rivera said. "I learned a lot."
With what's at stake, the Panthers will take all the help they can get, and Harper is doing all he can to give his teammates an edge in preparation.
"I definitely have a nice understanding of who this team is, of their offense and what their mindset is," Harper said. "Using those things that I've seen throughout the years at practice and knowing how those guys like to attack different opponents, and also watching this game from last year gives me a nice mindset about what they like to do against this style of defense."
WILLIAMS TO START: Rivera is expecting running back DeAngelo Williams to start against the Saints. Williams is returning from a four-game absence due to an ankle injury.
"He is a little ahead of schedule, to be honest with you," Rivera said.
Williams' return should provide another boost for a running game that's shown signs of improvement. Last week against Seattle, Jonathan Stewart ran 16 times for 79 yards. That was the most carries for Stewart in one game since 2012 and the most yards since 2011.
INSTANT IMPACT: The 2014 wide receiver draft class is quickly becoming one of the best in recent memory. Two of the top performers have been Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin (28th overall) and New Orleans' Brandin Cooks (20th overall).
Benjamin leads all rookies with five touchdown catches, and his 571 receiving yards rank second behind Buffalo's Sammy Watkins.
Cooks leads all rookies with 40 receptions for 372 receiving yards and three touchdowns – two receiving and one rushing.
Their production comes from two very different approaches to the wide receiver position. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Benjamin is an imposing figure who can play above defenders and outmuscle them. At 5-foot-10, 189 pounds, Cooks is a shifty speedster who makes plays downfield and uses his athleticism after the catch.
It's a drastic difference in styles, but it's clear both the Panthers and Saints are happy with their first round selections.
"I'll tell you this much, we liked them both (before the draft)," Rivera said.
TOUGH CALL ON BLACKBURN: Placing linebacker Chase Blackburn on injured reserve was a difficult decision but one that had to be done with Carolina in need of immediate offensive line help.
Blackburn injured his knee in Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Prior to the injury he had recorded 11 tackles and one passed defense to go along with four tackles and one forced fumble on special teams.
"That was a tough move," Rivera said. "He was doing everything he could. It was slowly returning, and there was some concern, obviously. We had to make a move, and unfortunately, this was the one we had to make because we are carrying an extra linebacker as is right now."