Saints lose to Panthers 20-23

New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (9) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Carolina Panthers' Mario Addison (97) in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. The Panthers recovered the ball. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (9) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Carolina Panthers' Mario Addison (97) in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. The Panthers recovered the ball. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Panthers coach Ron Rivera admits he’s hoping for some bad weather on Thursday night.

He figures maybe that might help slow down Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Well, that and a seemingly much-improved defense.

Brees pounded the Panthers secondary on Oct. 16, throwing for 465 yards and four touchdowns as the Saints built a 21-0 lead and held on to win 41-38 on the Louisiana Superdome turf.

In the three games since, Carolina’s defense has clamped down, allowing only four combined offensive touchdowns while getting 15 sacks with four takeaways.

Carolina’s young secondary, which was racked by injuries in the previous meeting, has gotten healthy and is starting to mesh.

“Drew is a great quarterback and he was able to find those holes, find those mismatches, find the mistakes that were being made on our defense last time,” Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said.

“But we have been able to correct those things over these last few weeks. I feel like our chemistry, the communication aspect that you need as a defense as a whole has been much better.”

Added Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy: “What we had last year was a swagger, and we’re getting our swagger back.”

Saints coach Sean Payton said he can see on tape the Panthers are playing with renewed confidence.

“They’re playing outstanding defense,” Payton said. “Their pressure on the quarterback has increased.”

Said Brees: “They thrive on giving you a lot of different looks at times and they have a pressure package, and try to force turnovers.”

But stopping Brees won’t be easy.

He is completing nearly 70 percent of passes and has thrown 24 touchdown passes with only seven interceptions. His QB rating is second in the league behind Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.

Some things to watch in Thursday night’s game:

DOUBTING THOMAS: Saints second-round draft choice Michael Thomas has emerged as the NFL’s leading rookie receiver, but is coming off one of his worst games as a pro. He fumbled twice in the fourth quarter — both resulting in Denver points — and had a pass ripped from his grasp for an interception in the Saints’ 25-23 loss to Denver last Sunday. Thomas has been quiet since, disappearing from the locker room after the game and declining to speak with reporters on Tuesday. “Emotionally he’s great,” Brees said. “He’s chomping at the bit to get back out there and perform.”

KICKING THEMSELVES: Major breakdowns on kicks have figured prominently into two Saints losses, including last Sunday. The decisive play in the loss to the Broncos was a blocked extra-point kick that was returned for a defensive 2-point conversion with 1:28 to go. Earlier this season, the Saints had a field goal blocked and returned for a TD in New York against Giants, who pulled out a three-point victory in that game despite not scoring an offensive TD.

ON THE MEND: The Panthers are anxious to get two-time All-Pro center Ryan Kalil back on the field after missing the past two games with a shoulder injury. Carolina’s running game has struggled in Kalil’s absence.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called Kalil his “secret jewel,” saying he does more for a quarterback than any offensive lineman in the league.

Defensively, outside linebacker Shaq Thompson is expected to play after missing two games with a knee injury.

NEWTON RUNNING: Newton only ran twice against the Saints on Oct. 16 in his first game back from a concussion. But the mobile QB is expected to see more designed runs this time around against the Saints. Newton carried a season-high 12 times for 54 yards and a touchdown in Carolina’s 20-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Rivera isn’t tipping his hand when it comes to Thursday night’s strategy, saying “it’s just about the game plan more than it is anything else.”

SAINTS DEFENSE: The Saints could have as many as four defensive regulars on the field for their rematch against Carolina who were unable to play in the previous meeting. Those include rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins — a first-round pick last spring — and veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who each had sacks last weekend.

Also back is top cornerback Delvin Breaux and defensive end Paul Kruger. “Getting those guys back into the mix always helps,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “…. They’re talented, they play fast. They’ve been playing well as of late, that’s for sure.”

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