CHARLOTTE – Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn’t downplaying the significance of this Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints.
When it comes to regular season games, Rivera said, “It’s about as big as it gets.”
The Panthers and Saints are tied atop the NFC South at 10-4 with two games remaining.
The Saints, who beat the Panthers, 31-13, on Dec. 8, can clinch the division and a first-round bye with a victory. The Panthers can do the same if they beat New Orleans and win at Atlanta the following week.
Rivera said the opportunity to play the Saints for the second time in three weeks – particularly at home – “comes at a good time” for his team after being throttled in the Superdome.
“We get right back in the saddle and get to compete against them,” Rivera said. “We don’t have to wait two or three weeks down the line.”
Rivera said he hopes that having home-field advantage Sunday turns the tide in Carolina’s favor.
The Panthers have won six straight at home since losing their season opener to Seattle. Meanwhile, the Saints have struggled on the road where they’re 3-4, as opposed to 7-0 at the Superdome.
“I’d like to be able to pinpoint one specific thing and say we’re going to change this one element and all of a sudden play better” on the road, Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Historically during our years here we have been a very good road team.”
Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said he is thankful this one is at home and on grass.
“We’ll be at home, which is huge,” Gross said. “The dome is a tough place to play, and they were coming off a tough loss, so shame on us if we didn’t see that coming. But, we’re feeling confident again. We never really lost confidence after the last game, but it was definitely a bit of a wakeup call to go down there and lose like we did.”
Rivera suggested after the 18-point loss to the Saints that the Panthers “might have got a little full of ourselves.” He doesn’t see the Panthers being overconfident again.
“There’s no reason to be,” Rivera said. “The thing that we have to do, most certainly, is focus in on this game. There is no reason to get caught up in anything else other than this game.”
The Panthers must do a better job in the red zone if they want to beat the Saints, Rivera said.
In the first meeting, Carolina was forced to settle for three field goal attempts in the first half, while the Saints converted their three trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. The Saints led 21-6 at the half.
There is also the matter of finding a way to shut down Brees, who gouged Carolina’s then top-ranked defense for 313 yards and four touchdowns.
Rivera said his staff is studying how the Seahawks and Rams shut down the Saints in two of the past three games and made no secret about Carolina’s plans to play copycat this week.
“We have to take a look and see what things they did that mesh well with our game plan, and try to incorporate those things as well” in the game plan, Rivera said.
If the Saints learn any lesson from last week, it might be the danger of poking at the Panthers.
Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes said last week the secondary was its “weakest link” on Carolina’s defense.
The Panthers used that as bulletin board fodder and held Holmes to 17 yards on two catches and held Geno Smith to 167 yards passing in a 30-20 win against New York.
“It helped to illuminate one of the things that we talked about – and that’s that we’re a team,” Rivera said. “If somebody is going to pick on a member of the team, then they’re going to pick on the whole team. You challenge one member of the team, you challenge us all.
“You fight one of us you are going to fight us all, and I think that is the bigger message.”
Rivera said the Panthers are expected to have Cam Newton available for the rematch.
Newton injured his toe on Carolina’s final snap of the first half Sunday, but didn’t miss a snap. Rivera said the injury is not a concern and shouldn’t keep the third-year quarterback out of practice this week.