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Carolina Panthers to fans: Get your head in the game

From the day Bank of America Stadium opened in 1996, it has been a pretty place that no one has feared.

And why should they? The Panthers teams and their fans have been mostly ho-hum. From 1996-2012, the Panthers won 69 and lost 70 in Charlotte. They were average.

The 2013 Panthers, however, are not average. Sunday – when the New Orleans Saints visit for an enormous 1 p.m. game for both teams – will be anything but ho-hum.

So here is the golden chance to make other teams respect – even fear – what the Panthers and their fans can do when playing in Charlotte.

This is the game where wine and cheese should be banned from the menu. This is the game where the decibel level on third down should be considered a failure unless it causes the Saints to burn at least one timeout because of communication problems.

This is the game where no seat should be vacant and standing should not be reserved for the national anthem. This is the game where the seatback in front of you should be used as a drum. This is the game where voices should grow hoarse.

This is the game you have to win.

Said quarterback Cam Newton this week: “(There’s been) a lot of talk ... about how loud the Superdome can get. And no one’s mentioning how loud Bank of America (Stadium) can get. From the past couple of weeks, it’s been extraordinary. We’re going to need that and then some come Sunday.

“It’s an opportunity for us to do something big.”

He’s right about that. If you’re a Panthers fan, this is the sort of Sunday you dream of. The Panthers have been floating in NFL purgatory since 2009, without a winning record or a playoff berth. At 10-4 this season, they’ve already secured the winning record. Beating the Saints would ensure a spot in the postseason.

The Saints are also 10-4, though, and with a victory they clinch the NFC South and the automatic home playoff game that goes with it.

They have looked to be in disarray for two of the past three weeks, taking double-digit losses at Seattle and at St. Louis. Those two defeats sandwiched a game in which the Saints looked like world champs, however, in a 31-13 lambasting of the Panthers in New Orleans Dec. 8.

At home, New Orleans has been literally unbeatable this season. On the road, however, the Saints are 3-4.

But they boast a future hall of fame quarterback in Drew Brees and a passel of receivers who made the Panthers’ defensive backs look like a junior varsity squad only two weeks ago.

The Panthers lost their home opener, on Sept. 8, and haven’t lost in Charlotte since, winning six in a row. The high point in terms of crowd noise – and drama – came in a “Monday Night Football” game Nov. 18 against the New England Patriots, which Carolina won in a controversial thriller.

This is the biggest regular-season home game the Panthers have ever had. Only the three home playoff games the team has hosted would eclipse it.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, looking for any edge he can find, took the fairly unusual step earlier this week at his news conference of issuing a “call to arms” for Panthers fans, saying Sunday’s game would extend beyond the green rectangle on which it is played.

“Knowing that our fans are out there, it brings an electricity to our players,” Rivera said. “Our players feed off that energy obviously, and they’ve done a great job responding to our fans.

“Our fans have been outstanding this year, and hopefully we can get a real big boost this coming Sunday.”

Echoed Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross, writing on Twitter about this game: “No one talk all week. ... Save (your) voices for next Sunday!!!!”

In the very best player-fan partnerships in the NFL – Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans and Kansas City among them – crowd noise can make a difference if the two teams are evenly matched. If the game is close, a tidal wave of noise is sometimes just enough to push the outcome the home team’s way.

The Saints will try to make sure the game isn’t close. Their No. 1 job will be to take a big early lead, hoping to turn the Panthers crowd sullen and quiet.

On Sunday, Panthers fans will have to be loud.

This isn’t Sunday school. It’s Sunday football. And chances like this one don’t come along very often.

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