Drew Brees, Sean Payton and a few other members of the Saints know what it’s like to be the Carolina Panthers right now.
In 2009, New Orleans ran its undefeated streak to 13 games on the way to the franchise’s only Super Bowl victory, a season Saints fans will never forget.
And when Brees, Payton and players like Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief and Thomas Morstead look at the Panthers, who come rolling into town for a 3:25 p.m. tilt on Sunday as the NFL’s only undefeated team, they know exactly what kind of pressure Carolina is facing as this season heads into its final month.
“No matter what their record, you are getting everybody’s best shot,” Brees said.
By the same token, the Saints are adamant that they’re not approaching this game with a little extra motivation from the chance to play spoiler.
Undefeated or not, Carolina’s a talented, dangerous division opponent, and a 4-7 New Orleans team is desperately in need of a win to halt its three-game slide.
“I don’t think any player goes into this game thinking if we can win this game, we have our little contestant badge,” Payton said. “We want to win games.”
New Orleans is obviously aware of where the Panthers sit in the standings.
But the job for the Saints isn’t to focus on the zero in Carolina’s loss column.
When Payton met with the team to introduce the opponent on Wednesday, he spent much more time on the particulars of the Panthers’ run, rather than what kind of history Carolina might be chasing and any chances the Saints have to ruin those hopes.
“Our players understand that we are playing a fantastic team, but the better question is how this team is 11-0, and here is how they are doing it and then in regards to turnovers and showing the numbers in regards to the takeaways, showing how they defend the run, what they are doing offensively that is really played out well for them this year,” Payton said.
Carolina brings in the NFL’s No. 2 defense, a unit that is dominant against the run and opportunistic against the pass, plus an offense built around a power running game and MVP candidate Cam Newton’s ability to come up big in the fourth quarter.
And any game against the Panthers has become a big game for New Orleans. Carolina, the winner of the last two NFC South titles and on pace to win its third straight, is where the Saints want to be.
“Regardless of if they were 11-0 or 10-1 or have our record, it’s a division opponent and a home game against an opponent that we have had tough matchups ever since we have been here, but especially in the last few years in the Ron Rivera era,” Brees said. “We know the type of game it’s going to be, and it’s a four-quarter game regardless of what their record is.”
Motivation in the NFL, the Saints’ veterans say, should be more elemental than anything else.
“You’re not going to make it very far in this league if your motivation is always external,” Saints tight end Benjamin Watson said. “If the only reason you get excited to play is because of what someone else is doing or ruin their season, you’re not going to last. The guys who last are internally motivated, are driven toward excellence.”
Play the role of spoiler? New Orleans says its motivation on Sunday will be a little more simple than that.
“I’ve never been one who got excited about spoiling anything,” Watson said. “For me, it’s about winning for us. We want to win for us.”