CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While the Carolina Panthers have been calling every game their "most important game" for about six weeks now, the matchup that received the most hype and attention came in Week 14. It did not go well for the Panthers. In a battle for the NFC South lead, Carolina was crushed in New Orleans, 31-13 in front of a national television audience.
On Sunday, the two teams will meet for a rematch in Charlotte, with the division lead up for grabs again.
"We really got embarrassed a couple weeks ago and this is an opportunity to prove to ourselves that we are who we think we are," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday.
Carolina's win over the Jets combined with the Saints loss in St. Louis last week evened the NFC South's leaders up at 10-4. If New Orleans finishes off a sweep Sunday, they will clinch the division. If the Panthers win, they would most likely still need to beat Atlanta in the season finale to take the NFC South and a first-round playoff bye that will come with it.
With two weeks left in the regular season, the Panthers could end up earning a No. 1, 2, 5 or 6 seed. But a disastrous finish could also see them miss out on the postseason completely.
"The only thing I do see is it's about winning, and every time we do win we get closer to it," head coach Ron Rivera said, when asked if he is looking at playoff possibilities. "I'm trying to stay focused and I won't talk about it. I want to focus on the next game."
That next game is against an offense that piled up the most points and yards against the Panthers 2nd-ranked defense. Saints quarterback Drew Brees faced limited pressure while throwing for 313 yards and four touchdowns. But his offensive line has been shaken up since then.
Not only was New Orleans left tackle Charles Brown benched last week against the Rams, but he also lost his starting spot. The Saints will start Terron Armstead Sunday, a rookie from Arkansas Pine-Bluff who has taken just 17 snaps - all on special teams - this season.
When he was told he would be going against a rookie this weekend, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy asked, "What happened to the last guy?"
Hardy had just gotten in from practice and had not heard about the switch yet, but replacing Brees' blind side blocker this late in the season, in a game with this much at stake, is a gutsy move by Saints coach Sean Payton.
It is also a move that could make the rematch drastically different from the first affair. With their talented defensive line unable to provide enough pressure, the Panthers saw their secondary picked apart by Brees. But if their line can get to the future Hall of Famer this time, Carolina has a much better chance slowing down the potent New Orleans offense.
"I feel like we're going to come out this week and win. That's what we do. We're going to show up. I have full confidence in my team," Hardy said. "You know me, I'm going to work my behind off in practice and come out and dominate like I normally do. They should probably be ready for a battle."
Not only will the Saints have a new-look offensive line, but they are a much different team when not at home. They have won all seven of their games at the Superdome this year, but they are just 3-4 on the road.
The Panthers, meanwhile, improved to 6-1 at home last week with a 30-20 win over the Jets. Before that game, New York wide receiver Santonio Holmes called the Carolina secondary the team's "weakest link." Judging by their performance in Week 14 against the Saints, Holmes was not wrong. But it was not the smartest thing to say.
The Panthers held Holmes to just two catches for 14 yards, while cornerback Captain Munnerlyn ran back his 5th-career interception for a touchdown.
Now Munnerlyn and company feel they have something to prove for the second week in a row.
"I feel we didn't play our best football against (the Saints). I don't need anybody to call me out and make me play the way I did (against the Jets)," Munnerlyn said. "We've just got to play all lights-out and communicate with each other. I think it's going to be a totally different game plan and we're going to go out there and execute, and we're going to win the game."
If Munnerlyn is right, the Panthers will have a chance to lock up their first division title in Week 17 against the Falcons, in what would be yet again their most important game.