The basics: Saints at Panthers

Noon Sunday, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.

TV: Fox | Radio: WWL-AM, 870; WDGL-FM, 98.1; KMDL-FM, 97.3

Favorite: Panthers by 8.5

Over/under: 42.5

Storyline of the week: Forget about the quarterbacks — the Saints simply must make fewers mistakes to win Sunday

When looking at the outcome of a game, people typically point to the total offensive yardage gained and the yards allowed on defense to try to put the result in context.

Sean Payton doesn’t look at it like that. The Saints coach often likes to talk about “hidden yardage,” which simply put is the difference between return yards and penalty yards surrendered. His research has shown that about every 100 “hidden yards” results in seven points.

“When you pick a game from last weekend and see if it adds up, generally you’re going to see those numbers come fairly close,” Payton said.

Giving up those kind of yards irks Payton — especially when it’s a penalty that negates positive yards for the offense. People often point to the number of penalties and yards that results in. What that equation doesn’t show is the yards the offense gained before the flag, such as the Jahri Evans penalty that negated a 12-yard gain by Khiry Robinson in Week 1.

Other things he takes into account are the missed opportunities in the return game. When a punt isn’t caught and bounces backwards, allowing the defense to down it deeper down the field, those are added to the equation.

What these things boil down to are mental mistakes. And even before Drew Brees was injured, the Saints were making too many.

Sometimes they show up in hidden yardage. Other times, such as the multiple fumbles during last week’s game against the Bucs, the results aren’t hidden at all.

Before New Orleans can beat another team, it needs to clean up the mistakes. That will be the top priority this weekend.

If the Saints continue to turn the ball over and make the kind of mistakes they made last week, it won’t matter if Luke McCown does a viable job filling in for the injured Brees. Things will fall apart long before then.

That was the difference against Tampa Bay last week — not Brees’ shoulder.

Four Downs

1. McCown’s time This is Luke McCown’s team now — or for now. It doesn’t really matter who is under center this week. The Saints have no room for excuses. This is an 0-2 team in desperate need of a win, and whoever is at quarterback needs to find a way to get it done. If not, it could get dark quickly on the Saints, and that wouldn’t be good.

2. Spiller steps up Some of the most exciting moments during last week’s game came when C.J. Spiller was on the field. His game speed was truly impressive. For this offense to turn things around — and to help McCown manage the game — he’s going to need to be closer to full speed this week. Look for Spiller to have a bigger role in this game.

3. Next man up It’s also time for Senio Kelemete to step up. The utility offensive lineman is going to be thrust into action this week with Jahri Evans out of action because of a knee injury. Kelemete is more of a natural left guard, having only played two games on the right side. He’ll need to adjust quickly or McCown will have a long day.

4. Vaccaro in the slot Last week presented a new wrinkle with Kenny Vaccaro playing closer to the line on most snaps and Damian Swann sliding back to safety. The approach could work well this week in helping to limit Cam Newton and the Panthers’ read-option attack. He could also have a role in covering tight ends and slot receivers.

Know your opponent

Panthers CB Josh Norman

Brandin Cooks might have his hands full this week if Norman stays on his hot streak. He shut down Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins in Week 2 and ranks as the fifth-best cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The Saints didn’t have many issues with Norman last season. He gave up three receptions totaling 40 yards in the first meeting. In the second game, he gave up two catches for 13 yards.

Panthers TE Greg Olsen

There’s a theory floating around that the Saints have trouble covering tight ends. In Week 1, most of Arizona tight end Darren Fells’ yards came against broken coverages. Last week, Tampa Bay’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught two passes and had minimal impact. If the Saints do have issues, Olsen has the ability to expose them. It will be interesting to see whether the Saints have Brandon Browner or Kenny Vaccaro shadow Olsen.

Panthers QB Cam Newton

Newton is going to complete some passes. It’s a given. Where the Saints need to stop him is on the ground. Carolina runs an effective read-option package that has given New Orleans fits in the past, and keeping Newton in the pocket will be paramount. The Saints have already shown some issues in keeping quarterbacks contained, but it wasn’t a major issue since Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston aren’t running threats.

Injury report

Saints

OUT: QB Drew Brees (shoulder), S Jairus Byrd (knee), G Jahri Evans (knee)

QUESTIONABLE: LB Dannell Ellerbe (toe), DB Keenan Lewis (hip)

PROBABLE: WR Brandin Cooks (ankle)

It’s a bit of a surprise to see Lewis listed as questionable. He’s recovering from sports hernia surgery and returned to practice Thursday. Getting Ellerbe back would be a big development. His coverage skills would benefit this defense. Cooks should be good to go. He did not practice much this week but his injury is not considered serious. Senio Kelemete should start in place of Evans at right guard.

Panthers

OUT: WR Jerricho Cotchery (ankle), T Daryl Williams (knee) DOUBTFUL: LB Luke Kuechly (concussion) QUESTIONABLE: RB Jonathan Stewart (knee), RB Fozzy Whittaker (shoulder), DE Charles Johnson (hamstring) PROBABLE: DE Wes Horton (shoulder), TE Richie Brockel (shoulder), DT Star Lotulelei (foot), DT Kyle Love (knee), G Trai Turner (knee)

Predictions

Nick Underhill: Panthers 27, Saints 17

It’s impossible to pick the Saints in this game. They’ve lost two games and have made too many mistakes to be considered a good football team. Can Luke McCown lead this offense? He has done it well at times during the preseason, but we’ve never seen it in a game that counts. The Saints have to win this one. If not, this season could soon become about draft position.

Joel A. Erickson: Panthers 21, Saints 17

For the defense, this game comes down to keeping Cam Newton in the pocket. Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston were able to escape the pocket and make plays, and neither is the kind of running threat that Newton presents. The problem, though, might come down to a Saints offense that has struggled to run the football, an absolute necessity this week.

Scott Rabalais: Panthers 27, Saints 16

When the Saints’ home field turned toxic last year, the road turned out to be a welcome change. The same may be true Sunday. The Saints will try to keep it close with Luke McCown while the Panthers stick to their favored formula of strong defense and just enough offense to do the job. New Orleans has a chance, but only if everything goes perfectly. So far, that hasn’t been the Saints’ fate.