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Saints, Panthers fighting for NFC South survival after tough losses

NFL teams say all the time that they can’t wait to get back on the field after a tough loss. So the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers must both be thrilled to be playing Thursday night after the two most-painful losses of Week 10.

The Saints (4-5) blew a potential game-winning extra point in the final minutes against the Denver Broncos. The Panthers (3-6) blew a 17-3 lead in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs.

And now, for the second time this season, they are fighting for survival in the NFC South. The Saints beat the Panthers 41-38 in New Orleans in Week 6, with Drew Brees throwing for 465 yards and four touchdowns.

Both defenses are healthier now. And so is Carolina QB Cam Newton, who barely ran the ball in their first meeting because he was coming off of a concussion. Now Newton is back running -- and dabbing.

Here are six Carolina players to watch, courtesy of ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton:

OFFENSE

QB Cam Newton: Yes, he threw a pick-six against Kansas City that proved to be costly. There also were questions about whether he could have avoided consecutive sacks that took the Panthers out of field goal range late in the third quarter at the end of a 20-play drive. But other than that he played well, and he has of late. Now he’ll face a New Orleans defense that he had 322 yards passing and two touchdowns against earlier this season. He’ll also be a threat to run in this one. He rushed only twice in the Week 6 game, albeit one was for a touchdown. He’s coming off a season-high 12 carries against Kansas City and with the season on the line, you can bet he won’t hold anything back -- particularly in prime time.

RB Jonathan Stewart: Stewart hasn’t had much room to run the past two weeks, totaling only 81 yards and no touchdowns on 28 carries. He lost a lot of carries this past Sunday to Newton, but the Panthers faced strong defensive fronts in Los Angeles and Kansas City. They won’t face that against New Orleans, which is allowing 107.9 yards a game. Stewart rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns when these teams played in New Orleans and that was in a game Carolina trailed 21-0 before everyone could get comfortable in their seats. With Newton a bigger threat to run, that should open up more room for Stewart, particularly if the Panthers can get a lead or keep it close early.

C Ryan Kalil: As mentioned above, the running game hasn’t been effective the past two games, and the absence of the Pro Bowl center (shoulder) has something to do with it. It’s also why Newton has taken some untimely sacks. The pressure on the two plays that took the Panthers out of field goal range against the Chiefs came right up the middle. So did the pressure that led to Newton’s pick-six. It’s still not certain that Kalil will be back in the lineup, but he was close on Sunday and probably could have played had the Panthers not had two games in five days. His experience and ability to identify blitzes is needed.

DEFENSE

DE Mario Addison: The pass-rush specialist is starting to produce since the Panthers became more aggressive after the bye week. He’s had a combined three sacks in the past two games and he leads the defensive front with 4.5. He had half a sack in the loss to New Orleans. The Panthers weren’t as aggressive with the rush the first time these teams met, taking Brees down only once. Brees obliterated the secondary for 465 yards and four touchdowns. Look for Addison & Co. to be in attack mode to take the pressure off the young secondary.

CB Leonard Johnson: The secondary has played better and the pass rush has been more aggressive since the nickelback came off the non-football injury list following the bye week. He wasn’t on the field in the first game against the Saints, when the secondary was a mess with rookies Zack Sanchez and Daryl Worley making their first starts. With outside linebacker Shaq Thompson (knee) still questionable, look for the Panthers to play a lot more nickel against New Orleans than they did in the first meeting when Thompson played all but one snap.

DT Kawann Short: He’s starting to make the impact he did a year ago when he led the team in sacks with 11. He has a sack in two of the past three games and has been solid against the run. Pressure up the middle will be key against Brees. It’s something the Panthers didn’t get a lot of in the first game, although Short did come close with two quarterback hits.