Saints seek to end Panthers' torment in the dome
Jake Delhomme has several reasons to love the Saints.
They were the team of his south Louisiana childhood, the first NFL team to put him on a roster, and ever since he left, he's been able to beat them with regularity.
The quarterback is 8-2 against New Orleans since joining the Panthers in 2003.
When asked about the last time he'd lost a game in the Superdome, Delhomme responded, "I don't know. I'd be lying. I'm not sure."
There's a good reason he can't remember. It's never happened.
He had only one home start for the Saints, his first career start in 1999, and led New Orleans to an upset of the Dallas Cowboys.
He's won all four of his Carolina starts in the Superdome and also beat New Orleans in LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge in 2005, when the Saints were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
He even beat Tulane in the Superdome - twice - when he played for the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (then known as Southwestern Louisiana) in the mid-1990s.
The Panthers haven't lost in Louisiana since 2001. This Sunday, though, they will face what is increasingly looking like the best Saints team in the franchise's 43-year history.
Having matched the 1991 Saints for the club's best start ever, the 2009 Saints need one more victory this Sunday to give New Orleans fans something they've never seen: an 8-0 team.
Delhomme is already calling New Orleans "the best team in football."
"What they do is awesome. It's fun to watch," Delhomme said. "On some Mondays you pull up film from around the league. I'll pull up some Saints film and just watch what they're doing.
"We have to go into the Superdome thinking we're going to play good football, because if you don't, they're going to run you out of there," Delhomme added. "It's kind of what they've done for the majority of their games this year."
New Orleans leads the league in scoring, averaging 39 points, or 8.5 points per game more than the second-highest scoring team, Minnesota. New Orleans also ranks first in total yards (428.7) per game. The Saints' 35-27 victory over Atlanta last Monday night marked the first time all season they hadn't won by double digits.
Some days, Brees throws the ball all over the field. He's had as many as six TD passes in one game this season. Some games, the Saints go with a three-headed ground attack powered by Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, who've combined for 975 yards and 10 TDs rushing.
And in every game, the Saints' defense has come up with at least one interception. Led by new safety Darren Sharper and new cornerback Jabari Greer, New Orleans has picked off 16 passes overall, already surpassing last season's total. The Saints have returned five interceptions for touchdowns, needing less than half the season to tie a single-season team record set in 1998.
Considering all that, it's hardly surprising oddsmakers are forecasting the end of Carolina's winning streak in Louisiana. They've made New Orleans two-touchdown favorites.
The Saints aren't buying it. Coach Sean Payton already has made his players aware he has yet to beat the Panthers in New Orleans, and the fact Carolina (3-4) has won three of its last four games wasn't lost on them, either.
"Their slow start this year is no reflection on the type of team they are," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "They've kind of come out like gangbusters the last few weeks and they're playing extremely well defensively."
Also, the Saints have been torched in recent years by Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who's made 11 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown in his last two games against New Orleans.
"He's an unbelievable football player. He does things that obviously you can't coach," Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "He's so explosive. The thing that I think he does the best is that for a little guy, when the ball goes up in the air, he plays like a 6-10 (basketball) center. He goes and gets it. What you have to do is to turn his little body over so that when he does get it, he lands on his head and he doesn't come back in for a while."
In some ways, Williams' strategy for dealing with Smith resembles what these 2009 Saints are doing to the historical perception of the franchise. For decades, New Orleans has been known mostly for finding ways to lose, never going to a Super Bowl or having fans who sometimes wore bags over their heads in shame.
The way the Saints have played this season, players and coaches across the NFL are starting to pay them the types of compliments normally reserved for Tom Brady's Patriots, Peyton Manning's Colts or Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers.
They refer to the Saints as an elite team - even the best team - without raising eyebrows. It's as if the club's long-held reputation has been knocked on its head as well.
When asked what it would mean to beat the Saints in the dome, Carolina defensive tackle Damione Lewis said, "It'd be awesome. ... It's going to be a challenge for us, it's a really good team. In my opinion, it's probably one of the best, if not the best, in the NFL."