Come Sunday, it's business as usual

The Carolina Panthers face an odd situation entering their season opener against the New Orleans Saints. On one hand, they feel sorry for the Saints and their families who have suffered through the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. On the other, they want to beat the Saints into oblivion and make sure they start off the regular season on the right foot in a key early NFC South division game.

The Saints will be an emotional group coming into Bank of America Stadium, and Panthers coach John Fox has spent the week making sure his players are ready to match that intensity.

"It's a cause, and in this game you need an edge and we've got to match that edge," Fox said. "I'm sure they're coming in here with the idea that they have the whole Gulf region watching them and rooting for them."

No, a win over the Panthers isn't going to change what has happened to New Orleans, but the Saints might be thinking it could give a little morale boost to the people back home.

"There is no doubt these guys will come in and play hard to give these people hope," said former Saint Jake Delhomme. "Because for a lot of these people these are their beloved Saints."

The Saints will clearly be America's favorite this weekend, and it will probably be hard to find many outside of the Carolinas rooting for the Panthers to win on Sunday.

"When your back is in the corner you come out fighting," Panthers fullback Brad Hoover said of the Saints. "I consider them probably backed up about as far as they can, so we're going to have to be ready for a fight when they come in here. Naturally we feel sorry for what has happened in the Gulf region and what they've had to go through. But when you step on the field, it's business. They know that and we know that.

"You feel sorry for them as far as what they've had to go through personally, but you definitely can't carry it to the field because they're going try to beat us as bad as we're going to try to beat them."

Added linebacker Dan Morgan: "We feel for what is going on down there, but when the game starts on Sunday you throw all that out of the window. It's a football game. You have to do your job and you have to play hard."

Ironically, if it hadn't been for Hurricane Katrina, the talk this week would have been about revenge. Remember, it was the Saints who beat the Panthers 21-18 in last year's season finale, preventing Carolina from reaching the postseason.

But now it's almost all about how the Saints will respond to what has been an emotional roller coaster the past nine days.

"As a team you could either fall apart or come together, and it seems like these guys have come together," said Panthers safety Mike Minter. "But these guys are professional football players and they are good anyway. And we understand how good they are. So with the extra emotional boost they will get from that, it's going to be tough for us. And we know that. We will be prepared and ready to go against anything that comes our way."

The key for the Panthers, as heartless as it sounds, is to remain focused on the task at hand and block out what's happening in the outside world - at least for about three hours.

"If you keep that focus you will be okay," Minter said. "And then when get ready to do your prayer time, pray for them. And when it's time to donate to a certain non-profit organization to help out, you do that, too. But when it comes to football, you have to be focused on your game."

The Panthers organization is planning to raise money for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, but the team's NFL Players Association Representative, Jason Kyle, said the plans remain in the works.

"We don't want to do it halfway," Kyle said. "We want to do it right. But I know a lot of the guys want to be involved, so it will be significant."

SERIES HISTORY: This is the 21st meeting. Series tied 10-10. The Panthers had won four straight against the Saints before losing in the regular season finale 21-18 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. The Saints got 140 yards rushing from Deuce McAllister and prevented the Panthers from reaching the NFC playoffs as a wild-card team.

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