Saints morning report: Carolina on my mind

Remember the New Orleans Saints-Carolina Panthers rivalry? It’s been on the back burner all season, but it’s about to start boiling over.

The NFC South co-leaders at 9-3 will face each other twice over the next three weeks, starting Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers are the NFL’s hottest team, having won a franchise-record eight consecutive games.

More than that, Carolina has been the Saints’ biggest nemesis in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era – indeed, going all the way back to the formation of the NFC South in 2002.

Since 2006, the Saints are 6-8 against the Panthers (though they did rest their starters in two of those losses, in the final weeks of the 2006 and 2009 seasons). The Saints have a winning record since ’06 against both the Atlanta Falcons (13-3) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6).

It’s the same story since ’02. The Saints are 9-13 against Carolina, 16-8 against Atlanta and 13-10 against Tampa Bay.

To catch up on what the Panthers have been up to this year, ESPN.com’s David Newton is a must-read this week. He had three interesting pieces Wednesday that are all worth a click:

  • Panthers safety Mike Mitchell backed away from his comments on a radio show last month in which he referred to Saints quarterback Drew Brees as “soft” for the way he reacted to San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks’ hit.

  • Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is a man after Saints coach Sean Payton’s heart when it comes to gum-chewing – although Newton’s vice is Wrigley’s Winterfresh, while Payton is a known Juicy Fruit lover.

  • Even more important to Newton’s success this year is his growing trust in his teammates.

Worth repeating:

  • “If they’re winning, it’ll be loud. If not, it’ll be like a sermon in church.” – Panthers receiver Steve Smith on the noise in the Superdome, according to the Charlotte Observer’s Joe Person.

  • “Last I looked, there’s still Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham and Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles and Marques Colston. This is a good football team, so sometimes strange things happen.”– Panthers coach Ron Rivera on how he’s remaining wary of the Saints, despite their struggles in Monday night’s 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Worth noting: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Panthers will become the third team to take a win streak of at least eight games into the Superdome against the Saints. The 1975 Vikings started the season 8-0 and won 20-7 in the Dome en route to a 12-2 season. And the 2012 Falcons started the season 8-0 and lost 31-27 at the Dome en route to a 13-3 season.

MVP watch: Not surprisingly, Brees traded places with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in Dan Graziano’s weekly MVP Watch for ESPN.com (Wilson up to No. 2 and Brees down to No. 3). Combined with the fact that No. 1 candidate Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos just wrapped up another victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, it will be extremely difficult for Brees to pass up both of those guys over the final four weeks of the season. Meanwhile, Carolina’s Newton is up to No. 4 on the list, so this will be quite a showdown on Sunday night.

Pro Bowl voting: Brees remains No. 2 in the NFL in the fans’ Pro Bowl voting (also behind Manning) with 793,685 votes. Tight end Graham ranks seventh among all NFL players with 534,867 votes.

Warning over counterfeit tickets: The Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans issued a warning for fans to be extra cautious when buying tickets on the secondary market – especially with marquee games coming up for both teams. According to a statement from the teams, they have been seeing an increase in counterfeit tickets this year, estimating about 100 fans per game being turned away at Saints games.