NEW ORLEANS — For the first time in the history of the New Orleans Saints, they play a team in the playoffs that they have already beaten twice in a season.
The NFC South champion Saints (11-5) host NFC South runner-up Carolina (11-5) at 3:40 p.m. Sunday on FOX in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans beat the Panthers, 31-21, in the dome on Dec. 3 and won, 34-13, at Carolina on Sept. 24.
A win by the No. 4 seed Saints win will advance it to play at No. 2 seed Minnesota (13-3) next Sunday at 3:40 p.m. on FOX as No. 6 seed Atlanta (11-6) eliminated No. 3 seed Los Angeles Saturday night, 26-13, and will play at No. 1 seed Philadelphia (13-3) at 3:35 p.m. Saturday on NBC.
If the Saints and Falcons advance, the NFC title game will be in the Superdome on Sunday Jan. 21 at 5:40 p.m. on FOX.
This game will mark the third time New Orleans has faced a divisional opponent in the playoffs. It lost to Atlanta, 27-20, on Dec. 28, 1991, in the dome after splitting with the Falcons during the regular season. The Saints defeated the St. Louis Rams, 31-28, on Dec. 30, 2000, in the dome for their first-ever playoff win after splitting during the regular season.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times in a season,” has been a popular refrain since the Saints were paired with the Panthers. Not true. It is more difficult the other way around, historically speaking. Since the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, 20 teams have faced a team they swept during the regular season. And 13 of those won for a .650 winning percentage.
So, there’s that, and the Saints are a touchdown favorite over a team they dominated twice.
But the problem for New Orleans is possible overconfidence, while human nature says Carolina will be motivated. At the same time, Carolina could have a hard time convincing itself it can win because it has lost twice, and neither was close.
“You kind of have to play both sides of the fence,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “Things they did against us that worked, they’re going to try to come back and do again. But at the same time, they may be doing some different things that we have to get ready for to go out and stop. And obviously, you don’t just look at the games you played them. You look at what they’ve been doing over the last four or five weeks.”
Meanwhile, Saints coach Sean Payton will be trying to change or disguise most everything his offense has done against the Panthers, which may be difficult as those old plays accounted for 400 yards in the 31-21 win and 362 yards in the 34-13 victory.
“It’s a good thing and a bad thing on both sides of the ball,” said Saints wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who has been on both sides of the ball with regard to this game. He played for Carolina in 2013 and in 2015 and ’16.
“They’re going to come up with something else,” said Ginn, who caught a 40-yard touchdown in the first game against Carolina. “I know the team’s ins and outs.”
The Saints may need to guard against overthinking things, too. They did beat them twice handily.
“You just got to go out and play football,” Ginn said.
“There’s familiarity,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 25 of 34 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown in the 31-21 win and was 22 of 29 for 220 yards and three touchdowns in the 34-13 win.
“But in these games, there are always wrinkles on both sides that you always try to prepare for, or at least have the ability to make adjustments on the run when you need to,” he said. “They’re a very good football team. They’re a very good defense. So for us, it’s what we do. Do it very well, execute to perfection and make the plays when you have the opportunity.”
Not all Saints will be so familiar with the Panthers. First-round draft choice cornerback Marshon Lattimore missed both Carolina games with injuries. The former Ohio State Buckeye will get to match talents with former Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess, who leads the Panthers with 63 catches for 840 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Yeah, I wanted to play Carolina because I want to see how they operate,” Lattimore said.
Payton, who is 6-4 in the playoffs as Saints coach, is trying to maintain a fresh approach as well.
“We start this time of year, and everyone is starting from scratch,” he said. “You pay attention to the personnel and the thing that you didn’t do well in the early two games. Maybe things you did well, but from a playoff standpoint you understand that now you are in a single elimination tournament.”