Rivera: Saints-Panthers ‘about as big as it gets’

Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn’t downplaying the significance of

this Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints.

When it comes to regular season games, Rivera said, ”It’s about

as big as it gets.”

The Panthers and Saints are tied atop the NFC South at 10-4 with

two games remaining. The Saints, who beat the Panthers 31-13 on

Dec. 8, can clinch the division and a first-round bye with a

victory. The Panthers can do the same if they beat New Orleans and

win at Atlanta the following week.

Rivera said the opportunity to play the Saints for the second

time in three weeks – particularly at home – ”comes at a good

time” for his team after getting throttled in the Superdome.

”We get right back in the saddle and get to compete against

them,” Rivera said. ”We don’t have to wait two or three weeks

down the line.”

Rivera hopes that having home-field advantage Sunday turns the

tide in Carolina’s favor.

The Panthers have won six straight at home since losing their

season opener to Seattle. Meanwhile, the Saints have struggled on

the road where they’re 3-4, as opposed to 7-0 at the Superdome.

”I’d like to be able to pinpoint one specific thing and say

we’re going to change this one element and all of a sudden play

better” on the road, Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday.

”Historically during our years here we have been a very good road

team.”

Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross is thankful this one is

at home and on grass.

”We’ll be at home, which is huge,” Gross said after Sunday’s

game. ”The dome is a tough place to play and they were coming off

a tough loss, so shame on us if we didn’t see that coming. But,

we’re feeling confident again. We never really lost confidence

after the last game but it was definitely a bit of a wakeup call to

go down there and lose like we did.”

Players had the day off Monday.

Rivera suggested after the 18-point loss to the Saints that the

Panthers ”might have got a little full of ourselves.”

He doesn’t see the Panthers being overconfident again.

”There’s no reason to be,” Rivera said. ”The thing that we

have to do, most certainly, is focus in on this game. There is no

reason to get caught up in anything else other than this

game.”

The Panthers must do a better job in the red zone if they want

to beat the Saints, Rivera said.

In the first meeting Carolina was forced to settle for three

field goal attempts in the first half, while the Saints converted

their three trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. The Saints led

21-6 at the half, and the Panthers never threatened again.

There is also the matter of finding a way to shut down Brees,

who gouged Carolina’s then top-ranked defense for 313 yards and

four touchdowns.

Rivera said his staff is studying how the Seahawks and Rams shut

down the Saints in two of the past three games and made no secret

about Carolina’s plans to play copycat this week.

”We have to take a look and see what things they did that mesh

well with our game plan, and try to incorporate those things as

well” in the game plan, Rivera said.

If the Saints will learn any lesson from last week it might be

the danger of poking at the Panthers.

Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes said last week the secondary

was its ”weakest link” on Carolina’s defense. The Panthers used

that as bulletin board fodder and held Holmes to 17 yards on two

catches and held Geno Smith to 167 yards passing in a 30-20 win

over New York.

”It helped to illuminate one of the things that we talked about

– and that’s that we’re a team,” Rivera said. ”If somebody is

going to pick on a member of the team, then they’re going to pick

on the whole team. You challenge one member of the team, you

challenge us all. You fight one of us you are going to fight us

all. And I think that is the bigger message.”

Rivera said the Panthers are expected to have Cam Newton

available for the rematch.

Newton injured his toe on Carolina’s final snap of the first

half Sunday, but didn’t miss a snap. Rivera said the injury is not

a concern and shouldn’t keep the third-year quarterback out of

practice this week.

AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this

report.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org