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New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m. Sunday, FOX

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‘Next’ really is the biggest game now for Carolina Panthers

By now, the Carolina Panthers’ mantra for how they prepare to face each opponent – “This game is the most important because it’s the next” – has become more of a broken record.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera and a number of his players repeat it at least once each week.

Whether the players or the fans believed it or not in previous weeks, it holds true this week. The rematch between the Panthers (10-4) and Saints (10-4) will go a long way in deciding who wins the NFC South, gets a top-two seed, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.

“I really do believe they understand (the magnitude),” Rivera said. “One of the things I told them today, we’ve gone through it every week. In our situation and circumstances, with San Francisco the way they are, with Arizona the way they are, and with the situation with the Saints, every game has been important.

“Every one’s important and that’s the way you have to approach it. They are important. We could have lost any of the games we’ve played and been in dire straits, and we haven’t. I really do think they understand.”

With a win, the Panthers clinch a playoff berth and are in the driver’s seat for the division title. A loss would mean Carolina would fall back into the wild card mix with the 49ers and Cardinals before facing Atlanta in the season finale.

Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said he and his teammates understand the situation, and they aren’t bothering themselves with the various playoff scenarios.

“As it stands right now, we’re not in the playoffs,” he said. “As a team we understand that, and we know that we control our own destiny. That’s the good part about it. We’re not sitting back like some of these other teams waiting on somebody else to lose and waiting on this happen.

“We know if we go out and take care of business as a team and we get done what we’re supposed to get done then none of that matters.”

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