CHARLOTTE – The last time the Panthers played the Saints in New Orleans, running back DeAngelo Williams ran for a franchise record 210 yards and two touchdowns.
Williams smiled when he was reminded of that performance, but it's not on his mind as the Panthers brace for their annual trip to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Instead, the running back is focused on simply returning to action after missing last week's game with a quad contusion.
"I'm anxious to get back on the field," said Williams, who leads the Panthers with 610 yards on 151 carries. "Being in the dome, I played there all my college career (at Memphis), because we played Tulane in that stadium. It's an important game.
"We are going to get their best shot, and they're going to get ours."
Williams couldn't recall when he suffered the quad injury during the Week 12 win at Miami. He's hopeful he'll be fit to play against the Saints.
"We'll see," Williams said. "I'm working my butt off at practice, trying to make sure that I'm 100 percent and ready to go on Sunday."
Defensive end Charles Johnson (knee), linebacker Chase Blackburn (foot) and tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) are in the same boat.
Johnson has missed the last two games and Blackburn and Hartsock have missed the last three. All three have returned to practice this week and expect to be in action against the Saints.
"I hate missing games," Johnson said. "I just saw all the opportunities I was missing with me not on the field. It was tough. I hadn't been on the sideline watching in a long time. It just makes you appreciate being on the field.
"If I wanted to force it and play against Tampa I could have, but I didn't want to. I'm feeling great this week."
Like Johnson, Blackburn said he could have played last week but is glad he didn't.
"Now I feel even better. It was a blessing to get that extra week," Blackburn said. "Winning made it a little easier, because it was OK for me to get right, get back to health."
Added Hartsock: "It feels great to be back out there. You miss it when it's gone, and I was only gone for three weeks. That was enough, more than enough. It's exciting to see the team do well, but you want to be a part of it, too."
DECEMBER'S NEW MEANING: In 2011, the Panthers went 3-1 in December. In 2012, they went 4-0.
"I hope we continue to do what we've done the last two Decembers around here," wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "The last two years we've put up a lot of wins."
Those victories came with the Panthers out of playoff contention. This December, however, the Panthers are playing for a division title and a playoff spot.
"The last couple of years we were just playing for pride, playing for each other and for this organization. We were pretty much eliminated from the playoffs the last couple of years at this point," tight end Greg Olsen said. "This is nice, but that same attitude, that same sense of purpose has not changed. We want to win just as bad, not just because we're in the playoff (hunt) but because we take a lot of pride in what we do."
ANGRY SAINTS: The Panthers always expect hostility when they take the field at the Superdome. With the Saints coming off a 34-7 loss on Monday Night Football to the Seattle Seahawks, they are expecting a little more.
"I think any time you lose you are angry your next game," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We have to expect hostility. It's a division game against a team we really don't like."
Said quarterback Cam Newton: "No one wants to have that type of loss, and we know those guys are going to be playing with all they've got for a lot of reasons."