GAMEDAY: Panthers vs. Saints II

The Saints (7-8) reach the end of the regular season when they play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C. But whether there's another game or not next week, Haslett promises his team will continue to do the things it has done to get in position to extend the season.<br><br> The Saints can get in with a win over the Panthers and either a loss by the St. Louis Rams or wins by both the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. But the surging Saints feel they've been in for several weeks.

New Orleans Saints (7-8) at Carolina Panthers (7-8)

GAME SNAPSHOT

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 01/02/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer; DirecTV, 7
SERIES: 20th meeting. The Panthers lead 10-9 and have taken four straight dating to the 2002 season finale. In their first matchup this season, in the Superdome on Dec. 5, the Panthers posted a 32-21 win over their NFC South rivals.
2004 RANKINGS: Saints: offense 17th (28th rush, 10th pass); defense 32nd (32nd rush, 27th pass). Panthers: offense 14th (25th rush, 11th pass); defense 18th (14th rush, 18th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The winner has a good shot at making the playoffs, so expect both teams to come out ready to play. One of the Saints' biggest problems has been slow starts offensively, but RB Deuce McAllister is playing as well as he has all season. DEs Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker are the strength of the Panthers' defense and will wreak havoc if QB Aaron Brooks is stuck in long passing situations, so the Saints need to find balance early on. New Orleans' late-season surge can be credited to the improved defense, which will focus on containing red-hot Panthers RB Nick Goings. Carolina wants to get Goings untracked early, control clock at home and then let QB Jake Delhomme take shots downfield.

FAST FACTS: Saints: Defense has held past three opponents to under 300 total yards and 17 points or less. ... CB Mike McKenzie has four interceptions in the past three games. Panthers: Delhomme is 3-0 against his former team and has thrown 18 touchdowns and just four interceptions in his past seven games. ... WR Muhsin Muhammad is averaging seven receptions for 113 yards in his past nine games.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Saints: --CB Fred Thomas, the team's nickel back, did not practice for the second straight day on Thursday because of an ankle injury. He is questionable for Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers.

--CB Jason Craft would likely take over the nickel back duties if Thomas is not able to play against the Panthers.

--RB Aaron Stecker pulled a calf muscle during practice on Wednesday and did not participate in Thursday's workout. He is listed as questionable for the Panthers.

--SS Steve Gleason, a special teams standout, has been able to practice this week despite a bruised lung and will likely play against the Panthers. Gleason has been held out of contact work, however.

--WR Donte Stallworth returned to practice Thursday after missing the previous day's work because of a hip pointer. He is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game.

--TE Ernie Conwell worked Thursday even though he remains questionable for the game with the Panthers because of a back injury.

--LT Wayne Gandy worked on Wednesday and Thursday even though he is still bothered by a strained right knee. He is also questionable for Sunday.

--MLB Orlando Ruff has missed two games with a sprained right ankle, but there's a chance he could be back for the Panthers. He practiced on Wednesday and Thursday and is still listed as questionable.

--SS Mel Mitchell, a backup and special teams standout, is questionable for Sunday with a strained groin. But he was able to practice Wednesday and Thursday and may be ready for Sunday's game.

Panthers: --WR Keary Colbert practiced on Thursday and will start for the Panthers on Sunday.

--RB Nick Goings looks for his sixth 100-yard rushing game in the past seven starts when he faces New Orleans on Sunday.

--DT Kindal Moorehead will be a key to stopping Deuce McAllister on Sunday. McAllister had a horrendous afternoon on Dec. 5 against the Panthers, fumbling once and dropping two passes.

--QB Jake Delhomme has a 106.4 quarterback rating since Week 9. During that span he has thrown 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions and has complete control of Carolina's offense.

--LB Dan Morgan should have a big impact on Sunday's game and should help the Panthers keep Deuce McAllister in check.

--WR Muhsin Muhammad will see plenty of man-to-man coverage from the Saints on Sunday, which means he could have a big game if he gets loose. He had 179 yards receiving in the last meeting with the Saints.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Saints: After winning three games in a row and getting back into the playoff race, Saints coach Jim Haslett said there's no reason for his team to change or do anything different this week.

The Saints (7-8) reach the end of the regular season when they play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C. But whether there's another game or not next week, Haslett promises his team will continue to do the things it has done to get in position to extend the season.

The Saints can get in with a win over the Panthers and either a loss by the St. Louis Rams or wins by both the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. But the surging Saints feel they've been in for several weeks.

"We've been in this mode for the last three weeks -- if you lose you're out, so I don't think it's going to be any different for our guys," Haslett said. "In practice, we're going to try to get better in the areas we need to get better in and just keep working at it."

Whatever happens, Haslett said he'll be happy with how his former underachieving and wildly inconsistent team came back from a 4-8 start to land on the doorstep of the playoffs.

"I think sometimes in this business you just have to coach for the satisfaction of coaching," Haslett said. "Sometimes, the coaches and the players get too high with highs and too low with the lows.

"I'm just trying to stay on an even keel and coach the team the best way I can. I try to get them to be the best players they can be, and make sure I make the right decisions so I don't put them in position to fail."

Panthers: Wide receiver Keary Colbert practiced Thursday and said he will play in Sunday's big game against the New Orleans Saints.

"I'm going to play -- ain't no question about it," said Colbert.

Colbert sprained his ankle on a touchdown catch during last Sunday's 37-20 win over Tampa Bay. He didn't practice on Wednesday, but was upgraded to probable on the injury report on Thursday.

However, Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker missed his second straight day of practice on Thursday and remains questionable on the injury report with a foot injury.

Rucker was receiving treatment on Thursday and did not speak with reporters, but teammates said he told them he expects to play on Sunday.

"He better play. If we have to cut off that foot and put another one on there, he better play," said strong safety Mike Minter, Rucker's closest friend on the team. "Yeah, he will be ready. He'll play."

If he doesn't Al Wallace, a solid veteran backup, would likely get the start for the Panthers. However, with the team's No. 4 defensive end Kemp Rasmussen also listed as questionable with a neck injury, the Panthers might be thin at defensive end if Rucker can't go.

After a slow start this season, Rucker has played better of late with three sacks in the past four games. The Panthers are relieved that Colbert will be ready for this week's game.

Colbert has posted solid numbers for a rookie with 45 receptions, 717 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

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