Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) passes under pressure from New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (93) during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La. The Saints won 31-21.

The New Orleans Saints have already beaten the Carolina Panthers twice this season. 

What that means is up for interpretation. The old cliché states that it's hard to beat a team three times in the same season — even though NFL teams are 13-7 in that situation.

Perhaps another way to look at it is that the Saints have Carolina's number.

The teams meet again at 3:40 p.m. Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and New Orleans is largely treating the rematch like the first two games against the Panthers never happened.

"Everyone is starting from scratch," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "The only thing that you pay attention to is, obviously, a division opponent, the personnel and the things that you didn’t do well in the early two games, maybe the things you did well."

New Orleans turned around its season with the first win over Carolina, a 34-13 shellacking in the Panthers' own stadium Sept. 24, then essentially clinched the NFC South by running away from Carolina 31-21 in the rematch between the two teams in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 3. 

In reality, both teams look different heading Sunday's NFC wild-card playoff than they did in either of the first two. For starters, the Saints will have rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore; Carolina counters with the presence of noted New Orleans-killer Greg Olsen, now fully healthy at tight end.

"A lot of things change and it's a new team," center Max Unger said. "It's the playoffs. You can kind of throw the regular-season record out."

Carolina has been decimated by injury at wide receiver; New Orleans, likewise, has been hit by a rash of injuries to its defense, including a season-ending sports hernia suffered by linebacker A.J. Klein, the former Panther who has a better knowledge of his former team's offense than most.

"Obviously, him playing against that offense every day in practice for his whole career, basically — kind of just knowing different checks, different calls they like to make, how they would like to switch things up against certain defenses definitely helps. (It) definitely plays a part," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "And I’m sure he’ll definitely be an integral part in helping us prepare."

If anything, the first two meetings between the Saints and Panthers play a role mentally. 

New Orleans has reason to feel sure of itself heading into a packed, raucous Superdome to play a team it has already beaten twice by double digits.

The flip side of the equation is that the NFL's playoff format adds an entirely new layer of pressure to this matchup, although the first two games carried their own weight. New Orleans' back was against the wall after an 0-2 start in the first meeting, and the two teams were tied for the NFC South lead when they met the second time.

"It gives you some confidence in the fact that you kind of know what they’re gonna do; you kind of know them, so to speak, as an offense. But at the same time, it’s a different season," Rankins said. "If we lose, it’s over. If we win, we keep going on."

New Orleans is also expecting a Carolina team out for blood. 

For whatever reason, a Panthers team that beat New England, Minnesota and an Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay team struggled against the Saints. 

"I know Carolina will be overly excited to have us," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "I mean, to beat an opponent a third time, that’s going to be exceptionally tough."

A division rival is always familiar. 

This matchup pits teams with plenty of recent history, and as the theories go back and forth about what the first two matchups mean, the reality of the situation is simple.

"It doesn't matter," nose tackle Tyeler Davison said. "The only one that matters now is the next game."

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.