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Panthers at Saints: NFC South showdown set

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David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
The Carolina Panthers, including quarterback Cam Newton (1) and wide receivers Brandon LaFell (11) and Ted Ginn Jr. (19), play a key December matchup against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

As he looked at the Carolina Panthers’ schedule before the season started, veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross figured the Week 17 trip to Atlanta would be the matchup to decide the division.

But with the Falcons sputtering and the New Orleans Saints re-loading with coach Sean Payton’s return from suspension, the NFC South likely will be decided by the Panthers’ two games against New Orleans in a 15-day span.

After four seasons of playing meaningless games in December, the Panthers (9-3) have something – everything – to play for during the season’s final month.

“It’s funny because the last two years we got a bunch of wins at the end of the year because we were playing teams that the games didn’t mean a whole lot, to them or us. But now we’ve got the Saints twice,” Gross said.

“At the beginning of year if you’d have asked me, I probably would have thought that Atlanta game would have been the big feature game at the end of the year. But I think it’s great. It’s fun. And if and when we’re in the playoffs, we’ll have experience playing some big games in December.”

New Orleans took a half-game lead over Carolina into its Monday night game at Seattle.

The Saints and Panthers will meet Sunday night in the Superdome in a game that was flexed to prime time, then play each other again Dec.22 in Charlotte.

“This next one is going to be big. ‘Sunday Night Football’ against one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game (in Drew Brees),” said cornerback Drayton Florence, an 11-year veteran in his first season with the Panthers. “And we’re playing in their place, my first time playing in New Orleans since I’ve been in the league. It’s going to be a good one.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he hopes his team has an advantage with the Saints facing a quick turnaround after playing Monday night on the other side of the country.

But Rivera said the Saints are a different team than the one the Panthers swept in 2012 while Payton was suspended for his role in his team’s bounty program. Although the Saints’ offense hasn’t changed schematically, Rivera said New Orleans is playing with a swagger again.

“Is there confidence? Certainly, because he’s back. He’s a very good coach, a very dynamic coach, a Super Bowl-winning coach,” Rivera said. “They feel very confident with him there.”

“That coach does make a difference. Sean Payton is a great coach,” added Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. “It’s going to be a very exciting game. I’m excited. Primetime TV again. You always get up for those games.”

In addition to the return of Payton, the Saints have received a lift from the arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Ryan, the son of former NFL coach Buddy Ryan and twin of Jets coach Rex Ryan, has taken a defense that gave up more yards than any team in NFL history in 2012 and transformed it into a top-5 unit.

“Defensively, Rob Ryan is doing what he does, (and) that’s attacking,” Rivera said. “He’s using different personnel groups. He’s using different defensive alignments. He’s attacking from all different directions.”

Still, it’s the Brees-led offense that gets most of the accolades and keeps coordinators up at night.

The Saints entered Monday’s game at Seattle ranked No.3 in total offense, averaging 415 yards and 27.7 points. Brees, who led the Saints to their first Super Bowl title during the 2009 season, ranks among the top 5 in the league in every major passing category.

Meanwhile, the Panthers boast the NFL’s top defense in yards (289.8) and points (13.1) allowed per game.

“They’re as good as they come,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “It’ll be a huge test for us, a huge challenge for us.”

But based on where the Panthers were two months ago, it’s a challenge Munnerlyn said he’s happy to accept.

“I’m glad we set ourselves up for this position. We started out 0-2 and then went to 1-3 and everybody wrote us off,” Munnerlyn said. “Now it’s time to set ourselves up to win the NFC South. The New Orleans game (is) coming up, the biggest game – that everybody’s been screaming about – of the year.”

Until the second Saints game in two weeks.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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