- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Carolina Panthers are coming back to the place where their remarkable run of 15 straight regular season victories started.

A year ago, the Panthers were 3-8-1 and coach Ron Rivera’s job security was a topic of considerable interest. Then the Panthers broke out the no-huddle offense that coordinator Mike Shula had been working on and the rest is history.

“We really felt going into that Saints game last year that was the opportunity to unveil it and it really went well,” Rivera said. “Something different and new to them that they didn’t see and I think that helped us.”

With a strong defense already in place, an effective adjustment on offense transformed the Panthers into an exceedingly tough out. Carolina’s only loss since has come in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs at Seattle.

The Panthers (11-0) are the only unbeaten team left in the NFL this season as they visit the Saints (4-7), who’ve lost three straight and would require a dramatic turnaround to have even remote hope of sneaking into the NFC wild card race.

The way these teams have played lately, Sunday’s game looks like a mismatch. But the NFC South Division rivals often play one another close, as they did in Week 3, when the Saints had a chance to win until Panthers cornerback Josh Norman’s leaping, twisting interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter preserved Carolina’s 27-22 triumph.

The Saints say they are neither motivated, nor intimidated by Carolina’s winning streak.

“It’s not like you get extra points for knocking off the undefeated team,” quarterback Drew Brees said.

Saints veteran tight end Ben Watson said beating Carolina would boost New Orleans’ confidence, but stressed that the idea of spoiling the Panthers’ pursuit of perfection does nothing for him.

“I’ve never been one who got excited about spoiling anything. We want to win for us,” Watson said. “If the only reason you get excited to play is because of something that someone else is doing, or wanting to ruin their season, or do something to somebody else, you’re not going to last very long in this league. The guys who last are those who are internally motivated.”

Here are some of the key story lines surrounding the Panthers’ visit to the Big Easy:

TAKEAWAY TOWN: Led by NFC Defensive Player of the Week Luke Kuechly, the Panthers have increased their league-leading takeaway total to 28. Kuechly had two interceptions at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, including one returned for a touchdown. Safety Kurt Coleman also returned an interception of Tony Romo for a score. The Panthers are plus-16 in the turnover margin. They’ll face a Saints team that has turned the ball over 18 times and is minus-4. “It’s contagious and you can tell,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of the Panthers’ penchant for creating turnovers. “That turnover ratio is a big part of why they’re unbeaten.”

ALLEN’S INFLUENCE: The Saints’ defense showed modest improvement in its first game last Sunday under new coordinator Dennis Allen, who took over after Rob Ryan was fired. They moved up from last in the NFL to 31st, giving up 63 fewer yards and 7 fewer points than the season average coming into last weekend’s loss at Houston.

Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams said Allen doesn’t mince words when he tries to correct mistakes.

“He’s going to tell you what it is - no sugar-coating,” Williams said. “He tries to give you a simple game plan where you can line up, play fast. And if you’re not getting it done, he’s kind of to the point about telling you.”

NEWTON AIMS AT RECORD: Cam Newton needs to average 256.8 total yards per game over his next five starts to pass Peyton Manning for the most combined rushing and passing yardage in the first five seasons of his NFL career. Newton is currently second on the all-time list with 19,890 combined yards, recently having passed Dan Marino and Matt Ryan. The dual-threat quarterback hasn’t been running as much lately, leaving that to running back Jonathan Stewart, but still has seven scoring runs this season.

STUMBLING AND BUMBLING: While New Orleans’ offense ranks third in the NFL, the Saints have scored only 27 points during the past 10 quarters.

“We have to remain confident,” Watson said. “We have to understand we have good plays, we have good players. We’ve obviously the first part of the season done fairly well offensively, haven’t done as well the last few games. But that doesn’t mean that moving forward we can’t get back to where we need to be.”

AVERTING THEIR EYES: Carolina can wrap up a third straight NFC South championship before they take the field for Sunday’s later-afternoon game if the Falcons lose to Tampa Bay earlier in the day. Carolina can also clinch with a win over the Saints. Rivera said he’d rather his players not know the result of Atlanta’s game because he doesn’t want them letting up against the Saints.


AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina contributed to this report.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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