Sometimes, a new dream can be born where an old one died.
That’s what would happen if the New Orleans Saints (3-4) can win at Carolina (3-4-1) on Thursday night and triumph for what would be only the second time in their past 11 regular-season road trips. That would be the case if the Saints avenge the defeat they suffered the last time they were in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, three days before Christmas last season.
It was then that the Saints saw the 3 1/2-game lead they held over Carolina in the NFC South five weeks into the 2013 season vanish for good. After Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw a game-winning 14-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds left to topple the Saints, New Orleans couldn’t rebound to claim the division title. That left the Saints without the No. 2 seed in the NFC, a bye in the first week of the postseason and home-field advantage for at least the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Saints bounced back by winning their regular-season finale the following week, and winning at Philadelphia in the wild-card round. But in the divisional round, they lost at Seattle. Those Seahawks enjoyed what the Saints were denied by Carolina: a week of rest at the beginning of the playoffs.
Obviously, Thursday night’s visit to Carolina comes at a different point in the Saints’ calendar this year. But it’s no less important.
After dropping four of their first six games, the Saints rebounded in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last Sunday with a 44-23 victory against Green Bay Packers, who were playing as well as anyone in the NFL and had won five straight.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have won only one of their last six games, losing four and tying another during that stretch. They’re cold as can be.
Yet the other NFC South teams, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, are even colder than Carolina. The Falcons are on a bye after starting their season 2-6. And even if the Buccaneers win at Cleveland on Sunday, they’ll only be 2-6.
All of that has combined to give the Panthers the slimmest of leads in the division over New Orleans heading into Thursday night. It’s a lead they’ll lose with a defeat to the Saints, who still have games at home against Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay.
In other words, the Saints can put themselves in a prime spot if they succeed in Charlotte. The Saints won the past 20 games Sean Payton has coached them at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The three divisional opponents they’re set to host in the coming weeks aren’t all that impressive — as a group, they’ve won only six of the 23 times they’ve taken the field this season.
The Saints certainly sense the opportunity at hand Thursday night and beyond.
“You can’t wait to get them at your place,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees this week said of games like the one in Carolina, where teams have a relatively rare chance to collect a win for themselves while completely eliminating the possibility that a divisional rival also wins. “That’s kind of the mentality: always ... get them at your place, so anytime you can go steal one on the road that’s a big confidence boost, a big momentum boost, not only in the standings, but it means a lot.”
Payton echoed that this week, bluntly stating: “Anytime you’re playing in the division it’s an important game; playing on the road in the division makes it that much more important.”
What’s perfect for the Saints is they’re as conditioned as they’ve been in a while to win away from New Orleans.
On offense, they’re rushing the ball well — the ground attack is seventh in the NFL; and running back Mark Ingram, who is tied for first on the team with four touchdowns, leads all players in the league at his position with 5.7 yards per carry.
That kind of complement can only help Brees, who leads the NFL’s second-best passing attack this year but has thrown costly interceptions in each of the Saints’ losses, all on the road.
Also helping Brees and the rest of his teammates on offense is a defense that’s suddenly taking the ball away from its opponents and teeing off on quarterbacks. After creating only two turnovers in the first five weeks of the season, the Saints have five takeaways their last two games.
And after recording seven sacks in the first games of the season, the Saints have sacked opposing quarterbacks seven times the past two weeks.
New Orleans has the adequate weapons to upend a Panthers team that’s below average to poor in every major statistical category on both offense and defense.
“Going into this game, if we can play a complete game, everything will be good,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was a 2013 Pro Bowler and is second on his team with three sacks. “
And there’s no time like Thursday night to seize back a division they lost last year in the very building they’ll invade.
Correction: This story mistakenly reported that the Panthers had lost five of their last six games. They only lost four. This story also mistakenly reported that the Panthers, Falcons and Buccaneers had won seven of the 24 games they’ve played combined. They’ve won six of the 23 games they’ve played combined. This story has been edited to correct the errors.