Saints, Panthers meet for NFC South lead Sunday

NEW ORLEANS — It may not carry the drama of the college football feast that was Saturday, but the Saints and Carolina will give it the old college try on Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

New Orleans (8-3) and Carolina (8-3) will play for the NFC South lead at 3:25 p.m. Sunday in a game moved back from noon to be the premier match-up on FOX with No. 1 crew Joe Buck and Troy Aikman announcing.

"These division games, man, they bring something out of you," Carolina starting right guard Trai Turner, a former LSU lineman, said on the Panthers' website this week. "I always compare this to SEC games. A lot bit. A lot bit."

Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, formerly of Georgia, called it a "fierce rivalry."
The Saints won the previous meeting easily, 34-13, on Sept. 24, which was the first of eight straight wins by New Orleans before a 26-20 last week at NFC West leading Los Angeles (8-3). Carolina has won four straight.

"We're getting into this portion of the season where it's divisional games," Saints coach Sean Payton said Friday. "All of them matter. We're playing a good team that's played well."
Then the Saints play at blood rival Atlanta (7-4) at 7:25 p.m. Thursday.

"That's going to be a quick turnaround," Payton said. "The focus is on this game, though, and then obviously you deal with the short week next week."

The Saints will be without safety Marcus Williams (groin) and tight end Coby Fleener (concussion), who each left the Rams game. There is a chance star rookie first-round pick Marshon Lattimore (ankle) will be back in action at cornerback after missing and being missed in the loss at Los Angeles. He practiced on a limited basis on Friday, but is listed as questionable. Fellow starting cornerback Ken Crawley (abdomen), who missed the Rams game too, is also questionable but did practice on Friday. Backup cornerback P.J. Williams (shoulder) is also questionable after not practicing Friday. 

"It is a next-man-up philosophy, so you can't really spend a lot of time thinking about who is not available," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen told reporters Friday. "You have to think about who you have available."

Third down will be a critical factor Sunday more than usual as New Orleans and quarterback Drew Brees are an out-of-character 14th in the NFL in that category at 33.8 percent, while Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton are No. 5 at 44.5 percent. The Saints were 3 of 13 on third down in the loss at Los Angeles. They were 6 of 12 on third down in the win over Carolina.

"It's an area that's going to be important in this game," said Payton, who met with his staff very late Wednesday going over the third-down problem. "It's something that has to be better."

The game will match the NFL's No. 2 offense in New Orleans with 409 yards a game with the No. 2 defense in Carolina with 288 yards allowed a game.

"They're a disruptive front," said Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara of Tennessee, one of the hottest offensive players in the league.

Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble, and Davis has two sacks and a fumble recovery. Davis, though, is questionable with a hamstring injury, as is starting outside linebacker Shaq Thompson (foot).

"Davis and Kuechly are elite players," Kamara said. "They make a lot of plays in space. They can run. They pop out on the screen."

Carolina will be without defensive end Charles Johnson, who has 13 quarterback pressures, as he was suspended for four games this week. But Julius Peppers is expected to replace him, and he has 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in a specialty rusher role. 

Rookie first-round pick running back Christian McCaffrey (shoulder), who has started six games this season and has 268 yards on 76 carries, is also questionable as is starting center Ryan Kalil (neck).

More use of the Saints' Kamara, a rookie of the year favorite with 1,094 yards and nine touchdowns rushing and receiving, could help the Saints on third down.

"There's a transition with him that's unique," Payton said. "He runs fairly smooth. He does have good balance. Each back's a little different. I think the way his feet are on the ground and how he cuts is pretty unique."

Kamara had a 74-yard touchdown run at Los Angeles and caught six passes for 101 yards with a 15-yard touchdown catch.

"He had a couple of catches," Payton said. "We just weren't consistent enough overall. The thing about offensive football is it takes 11 guys. There's so many things that go into it. We have to keep finding ways to get him the ball, but we feel like we have a number of play makers on offense." 

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