METAIRIE, La. — Brian de la Puente doesn’t look at the Saints’ game Sunday at Carolina as the second time 14 days that the two teams will play.
Rather, when the ball is kicked off at noon, it will represent a second half to the Dec. 8 game, one in which New Orleans won 31-13.
“Playing them this close is kind of like one long game where that game plan can kind of morph and mold and you can really get into what you like,” said de la Puente, the Saints’ center. “You really don’t have much time to change what you’re doing.”
However you look at it, one thing rings true – the NFC South and the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs are likely on the line.
And since coach Sean Payton has been in New Orleans, the Saints have never faced a team twice in such a short amount of time. In 2012, when Payton was suspended, New Orleans played Atlanta twice in an 18-day period, splitting the games.
But with just one game in between the Saints’ and Panthers’ last meeting, there’s little time to make big, sweeping changes.
“Not really,” New Orleans defensive captain Curtis Lofton said. “I think the good teams do what they do good. They don’t switch it up. It’s more like you’ve got to stop what we do.”
For New Orleans (10-4), that’s passing the ball and defending against it. For Carolina (10-4), it’s running the ball and defending the goal line.
Whomever makes the best adjustments in the quick turnaround will be happy come playoff time.
If the Saints win, they secure the bye in the playoffs and a home game in the divisional round right away. Meanwhile, if the Panthers win, they must beat Atlanta on the final weekend to get the off week and a home game.
“You don’t necessarily take the same exact game plan and line it up again,” New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Obviously they’re going to change some stuff, we’re probably going to tweak some stuff. Those are the nuances that you adjust with during the game.”
In that Dec. 8 game, the Saints sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton five times and held Carolina to 239 total yards, including just 111 through the air. And the one time in the first half that Carolina ventured into the red zone, the Saints buckled down, forcing a 24-yard field goal.
New Orleans, meanwhile, put up 373 yards and went 4-for-5 in the red zone. Quarterback Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes that night and guided an offense that cobbled together 24 first downs and went 7 of 12 on third.
“To me it is about what happened in the red zone more than anything else,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We have to be better there. We cannot allow that. Then in the last four minutes of the first half the Saints scored 14 points and went up 21-6.”
For Brees, it’s less about the short turnaround and more about the fact that they’ve played each other so often – twice a year because they’re in the same division.
“But you also know that everybody’s going to have new wrinkles for you offensively, defensively, you name it,” Brees said. “They do have certain schemes and they are what they are, but then again you know that you’re going to see something you haven’t seen before and you’ve got to be prepared for it and ready to make an adjustment, and that’s the way it goes.”