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Preview: Saints at Panthers

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The NFL postseason officially doesn't begin for two more weeks, but Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera considers Sunday's rematch against the visiting New Orleans Saints his team's first playoff game. "The next two games as far as I'm concerned are exactly that," Rivera told reporters. "There's a lot of importance to this game because of the importance going forward. This is about as big as it gets." The Saints can clinch the NFC South title and a first-round bye with a win, while a Panthers victory would clinch a playoff spot and put Carolina in position to claim the division and the No. 2 seed with a win next week at Atlanta.

The Saints, who were sloppy in a 27-16 loss at St. Louis last week, will try to duplicate their performance from a 31-13 home win over Carolina two weeks ago, while the Panthers have studied New Orleans' last two losses in search of wrinkles that could help reverse the result. "There were some mistakes in that game, some things that we didn't do very well and that we have to do better," Rivera told reporters. "We'll have to take a real good look at (the two losses) and see which of those things mesh well with what we do and maybe try to incorporate those things." New Orleans has won five of the past seven meetings but lost 35-27 in its most recent trip to Carolina last season.

TV: 1 p.m. ET, Fox. LINE: Carolina -3. O/U: 46.5.

ABOUT THE SAINTS (10-4): Drew Brees and New Orleans got the better of Carolina's stingy defense in the first meeting, in large part because they held on to the ball - eight of the Saints' 17 turnovers have come in their four losses. Brees (4,500 yards, 34 TDs, 10 INTs) is on pace for his third straight 5,000-yard season and put up 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers two weeks ago. The defense continues to impress statistically, ranking fifth in total yards and points allowed, but the recent lack of takeaways is alarming with just two in the past seven games.

ABOUT THE PANTHERS (10-4): The Saints are the only team to beat Carolina since Week 5, as the Panthers have won nine of 10 to move to the cusp of their first playoff berth since 2008. Coincidentally, New Orleans is also the only team all season that did not commit a turnover against the Panthers, whose dominant defense has racked up 27 takeaways. DeAngelo Williams (743 yards, two TDs) and quarterback Cam Newton (507 yards, six TDs) lead a powerful running game, but the Panthers likely will need to get the passing game going to outscore Brees and the Saints.

EXTRA POINTS

1. New Orleans TE Jimmy Graham has six 100-yard games, tied for the most in a season by a tight end in NFL history.

2. Newton's 89 total touchdowns (61 passing, 28 rushing) are the second-most for an NFL player in his first three seasons, trailing only Dan Marino (100).

3. The Saints cut K Garrett Hartley and signed Shayne Graham. Hartley was 22-of-30 on field goals this season, including two misses last week.

PREDICTION: Panthers 26, Saints 20

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/131222/preview-saints-at-panthers