W2W4: Saints at Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers always select somebody inspirational, whether it's a military member or a former player, to bang the "Keep Pounding" drum to fire up fans prior to home games.

On Sunday, for the first time in team history, an active player will have that honor.

They couldn't have selected anyone more inspirational than outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who has come back from three consecutive season-ending ACL injuries on his right knee to have the best season of his NFL career.

"It's a huge honor," Davis said.

But what Davis really is looking forward to is getting a second chance to bang New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who decimated Carolina's second-ranked defense for 313 yards passing and four touchdowns in a 31-13 victory at the Superdome two weeks ago.

"Whenever a team beats you, you always want to get another shot at them," Davis said. "As competitors, that's something that's on your mind and something you think about.

"We have to understand that's just what it is, an opportunity. That doesn't mean we're going to go out there and win. We have to do what we're supposed to as a team to make sure we are able to go win this game. It's not going to be a given."

The playoffs aren't a given for the 10-4 Panthers, either. While they can wrap up at least a wild-card spot with a victory against the Saints (10-4), a loss would put them in the position of needing a victory the following week at Atlanta to make it.

And even that wouldn't guarantee a spot if Arizona (9-5) won its final two games against Seattle and San Francisco.

"We understand what the situation is right now," Davis said. "As it stands right now, we're not in the playoffs yet. We know we control our own destiny. That's the good part about it.

"We're not sitting back like some of these other teams waiting on somebody else to lose and waiting on this to happen. We know if we go out and take care of business as a team and get done what we're supposed to get done, none of that matters."

With that, here are my five keys for Carolina to take care of business against New Orleans:

  • Rattle Brees: The future Hall of Fame quarterback is one of the best in the league when it comes to throwing under pressure. But pressure also is a good way to slow him. When the Panthers didn't get any in the first meeting, Brees obliterated the defense for three second-quarter touchdowns. When they brought in a few blitzes to move him in the pocket, the Saints scored only 10 points. The key this time will be getting pressure from the front four without the blitzes. That didn't happen in the first meeting.

  • Touchdowns, not field goals: Twice in the past two weeks the Panthers had early chances to score touchdowns inside the opponent's red zone and settled for field goals. It didn't hurt them against the Jets, but it did against the Saints. Instead of going up 14-0 or 10-0, they were up only 6-0. Instead of having New Orleans on its heels, they were one play from going down. Carolina has been one of the top teams in the league at scoring touchdowns inside the red zone (57.8 percent). It must get back to that.

  • Force turnovers: The Panthers failed to get a turnover in the first meeting, ending a streak of 16 straight games with at least one. They got back on the turnover streak last week against the New York Jets as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown. Why is this significant? Because the Saints have a minus-5 turnover ratio on the road. It's a big reason they are 3-4 away from home. The Panthers, by the way, are plus-8 at home, a big reason they are 6-1 at Bank of America Stadium.

  • Test the rookie: This goes back to rattling Brees. The Saints are giving rookie Terron Armstead his first NFL start -- heck, his first NFL snaps on something other than special teams -- because Charles Brown was struggling. Armstead will go against defensive end Greg Hardy, who leads the team with 33 quarterback pressures and is second in sacks with eight. Maybe more significant, he'll be going against a player who wasn't happy after collecting only one tackle in the first game between these teams. That must change.

  • Protect Newton: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was sacked five times by the Saints on third down two weeks ago. That was the most sacks taken by a quarterback on third down this season. If you're wondering why one of the league's most consistent third-down teams was only 6-for-15 (40 percent), this is a big reason. Sacks also are a big reason Newton's home quarterback rating is so much better than his road rating. He's been sacked 28 times on the road, only 10 times at home. As the protection goes, so goes Newton.