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Carolina Panthers face Saints for control of the NFC South

Before the Week 17 game at New Orleans last season, with the Carolina Panthers heading into another January without a playoff berth, former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme stopped by the Superdome to address the team.

The Panthers proceeded to roll to a 44-38 victory over the Saints to finish the season 7-9 and buy coach Ron Rivera another year.

Delhomme lives in Louisiana and likely will be among those at the Superdome Sunday night.

But Rivera doesn’t plan to have Delhomme or anyone outside the organization talk to his team this year.

Not much more needs to be said.

“‘Sunday Night Football,’ intradivision game, both (teams) 9-3, big implications for us – I don’t think there’s a whole lot of motivation that we need,” Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said.

“I think everyone’s kind of juiced for it. Nobody really needs to get us all riled up or anything. It’s the Saints, ‘Sunday Night Football’ down there in the Superdome, it’ll be fun. I think everyone’s got enough energy for it.”

Sunday’s game – moved from its 1 p.m. scheduled start to prime time by NBC – is the first of two in 15 days between the NFC South rivals, giving it a home-and-home, playoff feel.

The teams meet again in Charlotte on Dec. 22, but the winner of Sunday’s game will have an advantage in the pursuit of a division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

“That part’s pretty cool. It’s like a series. It’s almost like a basketball playoff,” Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. “But obviously we’re going down there with the mentality that it’s do or die, got to win this one.

“We want to keep everything in our control and not leave it up to anybody else.”

The Saints have rebounded from last year’s 7-9 finish, which coincided with Sean Payton’s seasonlong suspension for his role in Bountygate.

New Orleans was rolling until Monday night in Seattle. The Seahawks (11-1) blew out the Saints 34-7 to take a two-game lead in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

Worse, the Saints were stuck overnight in Seattle because of a problem with their charter plane, putting them a day behind in their preparations for the Panthers.

Payton said the travel problem was not a big deal. The bigger issue for the Saints will be regrouping during a short week before facing the league’s hottest team.

The Panthers have eight consecutive victories – a franchise record for regular-season games – and are closing in on their first playoff berth since 2008.

Payton believes the way Carolina ended the 2012 season – winning four in a row and five of their final six games – was important to this year’s success.

“It’s not uncommon for good teams to all of a sudden get on a roll, and you can see that with Carolina now with the winning streak they’re on,” Payton said. “They expect to make plays, and they’ve had to do it in a lot of different ways. But that’s very common when you end up winning as many games in a row as they have. You come from behind with some, you get up early with some.”

After three consecutive come-from-behind victories, the Panthers enjoyed a relatively easy 27-6 win against Tampa Bay last week.

They arrive in New Orleans as healthy as they’ve been all season. Defensive end Charles Johnson, outside linebacker Chase Blackburn and No. 2 tight end Ben Hartsock are all expected to play Sunday after missing multiple games with injuries.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees is coming off his worst statistical game in seven years. Brees threw for 147 yards in the loss to Seattle, snapping a streak of 43 consecutive games with at least 200 passing yards.

But Johnson, the Panthers’ leader with 8.5 sacks, said Brees remains a big challenge for Carolina’s second-ranked defense.

“He’s probably one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Johnson said. “He’s a smart quarterback. He knows where to put the ball. He’ll break down your coverage. He puts the ball up and makes his receivers make the 1-on-1 plays. He does it all.”

The Panthers’ secondary has given up several big plays the past two weeks and will have to contend with 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham, who already has set a Saints record with 12 receiving touchdowns.

The Panthers believe they can disrupt the timing of the Saints’ third-ranked passing offense by getting physical with Graham.

“Get people in his face, knock off his timing,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “You’re going to have to jump with the guy. Drew Brees throws the jump balls. You’re going to have to jump with him and make plays.”

As the Panthers’ free safety, Mitchell will be the last line of defense against the Saints’ passing game.

Mitchell, who spent his first four seasons in Oakland, has never played in the Superdome. He said he’s expecting “hostility” from Saints’ fans – and a playoff-like atmosphere.

“This is the type of game you want to play in, that you dream about playing in,” said Mitchell, who leads the Panthers with four interceptions. “We’ve got to get a win. It’s one of those (things), you can’t want to get it. You can’t might. You’ve got to have it, like you’ve got to have air.”

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