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As bad as they've been, Panthers playing Saints for first in NFC South

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Too bad the Carolina Panthers weren't as creative in the red zone during Sunday's 13-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks as offensive coordinator Mike Shula was in explaining why the sky isn't falling on the season.

"If you said at the start of training camp, or the start of OTAs , 'Hey, you've got a chance on Week 9 to be playing for first place, would you take it?' " Shula asked.

He then raised his hand.

"Yeah, I'd take it," Shula continued as he talked about Thursday night's showdown against New Orleans Saints for first place in the division. "That's the mindset. You've got to keep moving forward and forget about what's happened.

"You're playing for first place. It's the start of the second half of the season."

A short week typically isn't a good thing for an NFL team. Monday actually is Thursday in terms of the football schedule.

But when you're trying to get over the hangover of a tough loss in which you scored six points on three trips inside the red zone and a six-week skid in which you've gone 1-4-1, having to turn the focus immediately on another opponent might be a plus.

That the division lead is riding on it makes it easier.

The Panthers (3-4-1) are reeling, but they're still in first place by percentage points (.009) over the Saints (3-4). If they win on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium, the sour taste from Sunday's loss quickly will disappear.

"That's the unique thing about this profession, one of the reasons why a lot of us are in it," Shula said. "You have to take yesterday, and as down as everybody is because of the way things happened and we came up short, you've got to block it out."

That process began on Monday as coaches and players started condensing a week's worth of preparation into three days.

"As soon as we get in here, you got time, watch that tape, learn from it and move on," head coach Ron Rivera said of his instructions to players. "The sooner we get it out the better.

"On a short week we have no choice."

In the wacky NFL South, this could be about as big as it gets this season. The winner will have the upper hand, particularly if it's New Orleans since the Saints will have a late-season game against Carolina at the Superdome awaiting.

A Carolina loss could be devastating.

"We have to win at home," Rivera said. "We have to protect the confines and win those games. That's just the way it is."

The records aren't nearly as good as when both teams were 10-4 when New Orleans came to Charlotte on Dec. 22 with the division title up for grabs.

But the incentive is the same.

"You win this game, you stay in first place," Rivera said. "That's really the way we've got to approach it."

Rivera was part of a race like this in San Diego when the Chargers won the AFC West with an 8-8 record in 2008.

"This division, I think we're going to beat each other up," Rivera said. "It could almost be a game of attrition. Who survives at the end of the year, unless somebody gets hot and rips off eight in a row."

He could be right. At 2-6, an Atlanta team that has lost five straight has only one less win than Carolina and New Orleans. Tampa Bay (1-6) has only two less.

As bad as the division seems -- or "crappy" as one reporter referred to it to Shula -- it's technically wide open.

"You can't worry about perception," Shula said. "You've got to worry about what's right in front of you. Right now, it's the Saints and we've got to find a way to go have four solid quarters of football and find a way to win a game.

"You've got to focus on that. If you don't, you're kind of cheating yourself and your teammates. And that's hard to do."