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CAROLINA PANTHERS AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS, SUNDAY 8:30 P.M. NBC

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‘Unknown factor’ makes Panthers intriguing, NBC announcers say

Al Michaels has spent 28 years as the play-by-play voice of the NFL’s top prime-time game. Between them, Michaels and color analyst Cris Collinsworth have 21 Emmy Awards.

They’ve called their share of big prime-time games, but each expressed excitement for calling the Carolina-New Orleans matchup on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” this week.

“It is (exciting) because there’s an unknown factor to it,” Collinsworth said this week in a phone interview. “When the Cowboys play the Giants, I kind of know what’s going to go on. And when New Orleans travels back across the country after an emotional Monday night game and faces this defense, you start talking about Ali-Frazier and the classic matchups where you get one pure style against another pure style.”

For the first time since Week 15 of the 2009 season, the Panthers will play on “Sunday Night Football,” which is the No.1 prime time show on television based on viewership.

“I love when we get a team we haven’t had for a while,” Michaels said. “For me, we do the Steelers, Packers, Cowboys and Ravens and a lot of teams a number of times through the years. When you have those teams, you have to start from a place where a good part of the country has seen them several times, not only on Sunday night but on Monday night and on big national games.

“We’ve got a game where all of a sudden the NFC South is totally in play after (Monday) night especially. I’m looking forward to it. This is going to be very, very cool.”

Michaels said he would spend about 75 percent of his week watching tape on the Panthers since he knew New Orleans relatively well. He watched Carolina’s 27-6 win against Tampa Bay on his iPad from his Washington hotel room before calling last week’s Washington-New York Giants game.

But Carolina wasn’t always on Michaels’, or NBC’s, radar. The Panthers and Saints were scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff, but the game was changed to Sunday night when the Packers-Falcons game began looking less appetizing several weeks ago.

The Falcons are 3-9 and mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn’t played in a month and the Packers sit at 5-6-1.

“You don’t want to go in and do a Falcons team that could go in 3-9. We looked at this four or five weeks ago and said, ‘Uh-oh, Atlanta’s in a lot of trouble, that’s a game that could go away,’ and you start looking at the other possibilities,” Michaels said. “We kind of spotted this game when Carolina had won four in a row and the Saints were doing really well, and it’s one of the things you looked at and said, that’s a possibility.

“Maybe a month ago you saw this as a potential flex game, and then of course as the Panthers continued to win, it really loomed on the horizon but it became a big sparkling sun for us. Then a couple weeks ago this was a pretty obvious choice.”

Carolina has won eight straight, but New Orleans comes in after a miserable performance on “Monday Night Football.” The Saints lost 34-7 at Seattle on Monday, but Michaels said that won’t lessen the hype and excitement for Sunday night’s showdown in the Superdome.

The winner Sunday will lead the NFC South race.

“Had the Saints won the game, obviously this game would be very, very important,” Michaels said, “but now they’re going to meet twice in the three weeks, everything’s at stake: seeding, division title and the whole thing. We’ve seen the NFL. Teams get bombed as New Orleans … but that’s not indicative of the New Orleans Saints, that’s more of an aberration than any sort of a trend beginning. I don’t think it takes any of the luster off this game.

“This is really a marquee game. This is the essence of our flex schedule. This is what it was built for.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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