SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Carolina Panthers rolled through the regular season, crushing opponents early in most of their 15 wins, even if they allowed teams to make things interesting at the end.
One team made Carolina work hard for the win in both games.
New Orleans, playing without Drew Brees in the first game and with him in the second, took the Panthers down to the wire in both matchups this season, dropping the first game on Josh Norman’s incredible leaping interception in the end zone and the second on a ridiculous fourth-down grab by Greg Olsen.
Familiarity plays a role, according the Panthers.
“They know us,” Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “We play them twice every year, and what they have with their corps: Drew Brees is one of the best to do it, and the offensive line is pretty good because they’ve been together for a while. They know us, and they know what type of scheme that we run.”
Carolina’s defenders all said New Orleans has one other ace up its sleeve.
“I think Sean Payton’s a great offensive coordinator,” Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said. “He knows how to scheme up guys really well.”
Familiarity between the two teams should make diagnosing the Saints offense easier for the Panthers.
But Payton takes that advantage away, leaving a Panthers defense that normally plays incredibly fast a little bit hesitant and unsure of itself.
“Sean Payton’s a great play-caller, so he mixes up some different things, gives us some different looks we’re not used to seeing,” former Saint Roman Harper said. “He’s great at that. He’s always going to have something drawn up in the dirt. He does it for every team.”
What’s remarkable, the Panthers say, is that Payton always finds something new, no matter how many times they’ve played him or how long Payton and Brees have been running the same offense together.
And that game-planning always gives the Saints a chance.
“You’re going to see something different every time when you play him,” Short said. “I’ve played him, what six times, and there’s always something that we go over in the meeting room and we don’t see it in the game, because he’s got something different.”
Taking it easy
Brees has spent the last month resting the torn plantar fascia in his right foot, and the Saints quarterback is close to being back to full strength.
Brees, who played on the injury for the final two and a half games of the season, has taken the time to let the injury heal in the past month.
That’s why Brees didn’t make the 10th Pro Bowl appearance of his career last week despite leading the NFL with 4,870 passing yards, tossing 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in a performance Payton called one of Brees’ best.
“Just making sure that it heals properly before I start training,” Brees said. “Otherwise, I probably would have played.”
Brees, who has spent a busy week in San Francisco bouncing from panels to interviews to charitable functions and back again, told The Advocate on Wednesday night that the injury has healed well so far this offseason.
“It’s good, I’m taking it easy,” Brees said. “I’m, what, five weeks out now, so I’m still being careful, I’m not being careless or anything.”
First on the list
Former New Orleans Saints coach Jim Mora also holds the distinction of being Peyton Manning’s first coach in the NFL.
Mora coached Manning for the first four seasons, including a rough rookie campaign that featured Manning setting the NFL record for interceptions by a rookie. While he struggled through his rookie season, Mora stuck by him, and Manning remains grateful to this day.
“There were times where you almost want to come say, ‘Hey, get me out of here, because I am going to throw another one.’ He goes, ‘No, you are staying in there, and you are going to learn,’” Manning said. “We learned a lot that year. We went from 3-13 to 13-3 in just one season because of him sticking with me. I will never forget that.”
Mora also might bear some responsibility for Manning’s famous preparation.
“Jim Mora taught that team and taught all of us about discipline and about how to be a professional and approach your business and your craft with a serious tone,” Manning said. “I really enjoyed played for him.”