Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) tries to run away from Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) in a NFL football game in the Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014.

The Saints are running the ball better than any of their eight previous seasons with Drew Brees at quarterback, the best in any year since 1987, in fact.

And that, in turn, is making No. 9 an even better quarterback.

“Drew has such great success out of play action,” Hall of Fame wide receiver and NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin said Wednesday during on a teleconference previewing Thursday night’s game at Carolina. “But out of the shotgun, he’s had only moderate success.

“What that suggests to me is that when he can get the linebackers moving up because they’re worried about the run, he can go vertical and hit those throws over those linebackers. If you can’t stop the run and have to come up, you’re going to have a lot of problems with Drew Brees.”

The stats bear Irvin out.

According to Pro Football Focus, out of play action this season, Brees is 41 of 53 with five touchdowns and no interceptions. His 139.4 quarterback rating out of play action is tops in the league.

But apart from play action (PFF does not separate shotgun and non-shotgun snaps), Brees is 164-242 with nine touchdowns but all seven of his interceptions.

The team’s 133 rushing yards per-game average is seventh in the league.

But hitting that mark against the Panthers, even though they are allowing 135.8 yards-per-game will be difficult, Irvin added.

“If you saw their game against Seattle (a 13-9 loss), it was physical, physical, physical,” he said. “Carolina just happened to come up a little short.

“That front four of the Panthers is hard for anybody to have success against, even without Greg Hardy.”

Fellow analysts Steve Mariucci predicted, “A heck of a game.”

“Every time Riverboat Ron (Carolina coach Ron Rivera) gambled last year, it seemed to pay off,” he said. “And Cam Newton is turning into one of the really good quarterbacks in the league.

“But I don’t understand how they let their best four receivers get away. Kelvin Benjamin (the Panthers’ first-round draft pick out of Florida State) is one of my favorite young guys in the league, but it takes time to gain that rhythm with a quarterback.”

But the Saints, Mariucci added, have been somewhat of a disappointment.

“I thought they would be very, very good,” he said. “(Defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan really had it going last year, but this year, not so much.

“Drew’s having a heck of a year, and that rookie receiver (Brandin Cooks) is really special. You’ve got a couple of teams that are still trying to find their way.”

Fortunately for them, though, at 3-4-1 and 3-4 respectively, the Panthers and the Saints are 1-2 in the NFC South with Atlanta at 2-6 and Tampa Bay 1-6.

Theoretically, nobody’s out of it.

“That’s the way the NFL wants it,” Irvin said. “Everyone has an opportunity every year and usually every week.

“So everybody’s fan base stays excited. I’ve still never heard of a division where nobody’s over .500 after eight weeks.”

Along with Irvin and Mariucci, Phil Simms and Bill Cowher took part in the teleconference.

Here’s a sampling of some of the things they said:

WHAT’S MADE DENVER BETTER THIS SEASON? Irvin: “Emmanuel Sanders. He gives you a combination of what Wes Welker can do in the slot, but also gives them the thing they did not have, which was to get more vertical. With Sanders, it’s almost like Peyton Manning is playing on a different planet from ours, and he’s just looking down upon everybody else.”

WHAT ABOUT THE REPORTED TURMOIL ON THE SEAHAWKS? Irvin: “Once you win the Super Bowl, it is always, always, always the chatter and the noise that all of the people are putting in the ears of the people that you keep. Everybody is telling you that you played an important role, you deserve a bigger piece of the pie and this and this and this and this. It all comes in the locker room, and you have to find a way to remove it and get back to what you know got you a Super Bowl championship, and that’s playing together. Football teams get pulled apart. But football families get closer and win together. Seattle has gone in a valley and let’s see how they come out of it.”

CAN DETROIT WIN THE NFC NORTH? Mariucci: “They can, particularly because their defensive front is so strong. They’re finding ways to win, like against the Saints when they were down 13 and came back. The Bears are not what we thought they would be and all of a sudden Green Bay is 5-3. The Lions’ last game of the season is at Green Bay and they haven’t won there since ’91. That game should be exciting.”

WHAT’S WRONG WITH JAY CUTLER? Cowher: “He’s a good quarterback, but leadership is not one of his strong suits. You’ve got to take control when the bullets start to fly. And sometimes when the bullets start flying, Jay Cutler’s not at his best.”

IS ANDREW LUCK THE BEST OF THE NEXT GENERATION OF YOUNG QUARTERBACKS? Mariucci: “Absolutely. He’s strong. He’s smart. He’s a leader. He can make all of the throws. He can run. He can go no-huddle. He can take a hit. We have all the respect in the world for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and keep them on top of the pedestal. But Andrew Luck is right there. Provided he’s healthy, Andrew Luck will be the guy who threatens all of these records some day.”