GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 22nd meeting. The Saints lead the series 12-11. The emotion-swept Saints beat the Panthers 23-20 in the season opener at Bank of America Stadium on a 47-yard field goal by John Carney at the end of regulation.
2005 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (24th rush, 17th pass); defense 3rd (3rd rush, 12th pass). Saints: offense 17th (15th rush, 16th pass); defense 17th (29th rush, 5th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Todd Bouman will make his first start since 2001 and his first in three seasons with the Saints. Coach Jim Haslett's hope is that Bouman can protect the ball better than deposed Aaron Brooks, who had thrown more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (13). Expect the Saints to rely heavily on their running game early on to help get Bouman, who has thrown just 26 passes in the last three seasons, into the flow of the game. With the quarterback change, New Orleans needs a big game out of its defense, which allowed 350 yards in its season-opening win in Carolina. The Panthers averaged 5.6 yards per carry that game and will again test the Saints' front seven. New Orleans has a strong pass rush, but it will be rendered useless if Carolina is constantly creating short-yardage situations. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme has been over-aggressive at times, and multiple turnovers are about the only thing that can keep the Saints competitive Sunday.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Are 6-0 when winning the turnover margin. ... Delhomme needs 73 passing yards to join Steve Beuerlein (12,690) as the only players in franchise history with 10,000. Saints: WR Joe Horn does not have a touchdown reception in his past eight games, his longest such stretch in six seasons with the team. ... Do not have a defensive touchdown in their past 36 games.
--LB Dan Morgan is expected to start against New Orleans on Sunday despite tweaking his ankle last week.
--RB DeShaun Foster should get the bulk of carries this week.
--DE Mike Rucker was back at practice on Thursday, although he is still questionable. It's still hard to gauge Rucker's status since the Panthers practiced indoors on Thursday due to icy weather conditions. Rucker didn't do much, but neither did anyone else.
--K John Kasay has missed seven of his last nine field goals from beyond 40 yards. "It's just something you see from time to time," said special teams coach Danny Crossman. "I mean, Tiger Woods goes through stretches where he is not on his 'A' game. The difference with a kicker is that you might only get one or two chances. A golfer may hit a bad drive on the first hole, but he's got 17 other holes to make up for it. As a kicker, you may only get one more (chance at a) field goal. John understands it. When we have an opportunity to score, we've got to score."
--TE Michael Gaines did not practice Thursday and is likely to miss his second straight game with a sprained ankle.
--RDE Darren Howard, who was inactive for Monday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons because of a sore right knee, will probably not play in the final three games of the season.
Saints coach Jim Haslett said Wednesday that Howard, who has been tagged as the team's franchise player the last two seasons, will likely not return next season because of salary cap reasons.
--C LeCharles Bentley has an elbow injury and is questionable for Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers. Bentley had an MRI on the elbow and was limited in practice this week.
--LG Kendyl Jacox is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Panthers because of a knee problem. He did not work Thursday and his availability for Sunday remains in doubt.
--LT Wayne Gandy aggravated a calf injury in practice on Wednesday and is questionable for Sunday after being limited Thursday. But Haslett thinks Gandy will be able to play this week.
--SLB Sedrick Hodge sprained his left ankle on Monday night and is questionable for the game against the Panthers.
--RB Aaron Stecker has a neck injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's matchup with the Panthers despite working Thursday.
--CB Jason Craft, who is the dime back in the Saints' six-defensive back alignment, has a sprained toe and is questionable for Sunday's game.
--TE Shad Meier was not on the injury report, but he didn't play last week because of a recurring knee problem.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Panthers:
The Panthers insist the Saints' decision to bench quarterback Aaron Brooks in favor of seldom-used backup Todd Bouman will not cause them to change Sunday's game plan.
"We'll be the same," said safety Mike Minter. "We will use the same plan we've had all week. We scheme more against a team than individual players anyway. We just have to be ready to adjust if they do something different."
The Panthers are expecting a steady mix of three-step drops from Bouman, a strategy Brooks employed to beat the Panthers 23-20 in the season opener more than three months ago.
"That's what they do, three-step drops," Minter said. "They haven't changed all year. I think they will probably try to run the ball and shorten the game and play some defense."
Clearly, the Panthers won't have to worry as much about Bouman scrambling.
"(Bouman) is not immobile, but he's not an Aaron Brooks," said safety Marlon McCree. "So we have to be aggressive like we would if Aaron was going to play. Every week we like to be aggressive and dominate the line of scrimmage, so whoever that quarterback is back there, our game plan doesn't change."
The Panthers are likely to get defensive end Mike Rucker back for this game. He practiced on Thursday.
While plenty of uncertainty faces the entire Saints organization in the coming months, coach Jim Haslett wants to know his status in a few weeks.
Haslett said Wednesday he hasn't spoken with owner Tom Benson about what the future holds for him beyond the season finale on Jan. 1 at Tampa Bay, but he would like to know where he stands for 2006 by then.
Haslett, the Saints' coach for the past six seasons, has one year left on a contract that pays him $3 million annually. He was asked about it following an NFL Network report that said he plans to resign at the end of the season and recently asked Benson to fire him but was turned down.
"I haven't talked to Mr. Benson about any of that at all," Haslett said. "I haven't talked about those possibilities yet. I would like to know something before the end of the season. But that's up to him."
It's been a tough season for Haslett, whose team was chased from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in late August. Since then, the Saints have had to move three times while they were based in San Antonio.
They have also split home games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge and played their first "home" game against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium.
The NFL Network report said Haslett, who turned 50 years old last week, is worn out by the adversity on and off the field.
When asked if he thought he would be back next season, Haslett said, "I can't answer that. I don't know."