"It's hard to beat a team three times."
On the relatively rare occasion that a team squares off in the playoffs against a division foe it swept in the regular season, that cliché is always thrown out.
But should the saying be thrown into the garbage?
At first glance, maybe. Upon further inspection, perhaps not.
A deep dive into the history of such matchups provides reasons for the Panthers to believe that the third time will be the charm when they visit the New Orleans Saints for an NFC Wild Card matchup Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET, FOX).
On the surface, a straightforward stat about the prospect of beating a team three times in one season seems to squash the popular notion. On 20 occasions since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, a team has faced a division foe in the playoffs going for a three-game sweep. On 13 occasions, the team completed the sweep.
So does that means it's not hard to beat a team three times? Hardly.
That's because it's all relative.
Yes, teams have completed the sweep 65 percent of the time. But in 16 of those 20 meetings, they've been at home and have been the odds-on favorite. Eleven of those teams have secured the sweep – a success rate of 68.8 percent.
But consider these two numbers as well.
Since the first such meeting, a game between the Dolphins and Jets in the strike-shortened 1982 season, home playoff favorites across the board have won a little more than 70 percent of the time.
And since 2002, when the NFC South was born, six playoff matchups have featured a team going for a three-game sweep. Teams have completed the sweep four times – 66.7 percent of the time – but in those six games have outscored the opposing team by a total of just 15 points.
Put it all together, and a team trying to avoid a three-game sweep in the playoffs is slightly more likely to win than a random road underdog is.
Look at it this way: In a matchup like the Saints and Panthers on Sunday, with the team that won both meetings playing at home, nearly everyone will favor the home team. I dare say the large majority of this week's Pickin' It prognosticators will select the Saints.
Yet it happens less than two-thirds of the time – at a slightly lesser rate than home playoff favorites win in general - and the games tend to be close.
Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds competition.
"We have a better feel. We know who their new players are and how they fit into their system – as they do with us," head coach Ron Rivera said. "You've got a couple of really good tapes to watch on how they attacked you and how you tried to attack them and what worked and didn't work.
"I think it will come down to how we as coaches approach the game, how we prepare for the game – our game plan and how our players go out and execute. This I think will be a very good chess match in all three phases of the game."
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula – and to a lesser extent Rivera – have been on the frontlines of the "three times" cliché. In 1994, Shula was tight ends coach for the Bears (when Rivera was a TV analyst for the team) when they were swept in the regular season by the Vikings. In the NFC Wild Card round, however, Chicago ended Minnesota's season with a 35-18 triumph.
"It's a little like basketball when teams are playing in a series and the little adjustments that they make. It's that kind of mentality," Shula said. "They know us just as well as we know them. A lot of times, scheme can get a little overrated, too. We just want our guys to go play fast and do whatever it takes – whether it's a new wrinkle here or there, or if it's saying, ‘You know we have this, but we're going to run it anyway because we feel like we can have success with it.'
"It's a combination of those things."
Another potential part of the equation? The pressure quotient.
The Saints are at home. They've beaten the Panthers twice. Despite it being "hard to beat a team three times," conventional wisdom says the Saints are supposed to win even if the cliché doesn't.
"We can't let them beat us three times," defensive end Mario Addison said. "You can't let any team beat you three times. You have to come out swinging and throw everything at them, including the kitchen sink."
LAST TIME THEY MET