The reasons, though, are markedly different for the NFC South rivals as they square off for the second time in two weeks on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
The Saints will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s matchup. As a result, they can afford to rest injured players and can also can rest or limit the snaps played by key players in order to avoid or minimize the risk of injury.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees indicated after practice Wednesday that he won’t play the whole game — if he plays at all — and said other players would sit out.
“You want to be the best that you can be when the playoffs arrive,” said Brees, who added that backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would play. “I don’t think we’re worried about killing momentum or anything else because we’re not goofing around at practice. I mean, we’re taking practice serious, guys are getting the work done we need to get done. We’re going through the process, we’re going through our routine and preparing ourselves to play.”
The Saints improved to 13-2 with last week’s 31-28 victory over Pittsburgh, a game that marked the best performance by the offense in a month. However, the defense had its worst game in several weeks as the Steelers passed for 364 yards, though they ran for just 65.
New Orleans prevailed at Carolina 12-9 on Dec. 17. Much has changed for the Panthers (6-9) since that game. They have lost seven in a row and been eliminated from playoff contention. Quarterback Cam Newton, who had been playing with a shoulder injury, has been shut down for the season and backup Taylor Heinicke was ruled out for Sunday’s game.
Despite the myriad issues of Carolina, the Saints know they can’t afford to take the Panthers — or any other team — lightly. Plus, New Orleans is trying to win 14 games for the first time in franchise history.
“At the end of the day it’s a football game in the NFL,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “(The Panthers) are going to come in here and try to get a win and we need to get a win. Regardless of what we’ve already taken care of, the last thing you want to do at any point in this league is lose.
“The moment you start to relax and start thinking about the playoffs and things down the road that’s when you begin to slip and lose your edge, you begin to lose what’s driving you.”
Heinicke was battered around in his first career start in last week’s home finale against Atlanta, so Will Allen, an undrafted rookie out of the University of Houston, will make his first career start against the Saints.
Allen briefly replaced Heinicke last week against the Falcons and was 4-for-4 passing for 38 yards when summoned in the second quarter. Carolina had signed him from the practice squad only a few days earlier.
“You get it going and play with confidence,” Allen said. “Over the years you build up this confidence that you know what you can do as a player and you know what you can do when you have confidence in the players around you. … I think it’s a testament to my mindset. I appreciate them trusting me. I appreciate them giving me that opportunity to go out there.”
Sunday’s game will be the last for retiring Panthers center Ryan Kalil. It could mark the end of the careers for veteran defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker Thomas Davis, giving Carolina added motivation to play well.
“You want to send guys out on the right note,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “These guys are the types of guys that deserve it. They are good football players. They have had great careers for this organization.”
Rivera’s status has been been a subject of speculation, though reports suggest that new owner David Tepper is inclined to keep the coach around for another season.
“The disappointment obviously is that we haven’t won,” Rivera said. “I get that. I understand. We are in the business of winning.”
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey needs four receiving yards to join New Orleans running back Alvin Karma to become the only two players in NFL history with 1,500 career rushing yards and 1,500 career receiving yards in their first two seasons.