The Saints have looked like a different team since an embarrassing 55-21 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on September 28. Even though they lost the following game to the Carolina Panthers, the Saints were competitive and were in the game until the fourth quarter while dropping a 19-13 decision to the then-unbeaten Panthers. Now, heading into Sunday's rematch with the Panthers in the Superdome, the rejuvenated Saints know that they have a huge opportunity to make amends for their horrible 1-4 start. The Saints have a winning streak for the first time this season after beating the Chicago Bears (20-13) and Atlanta Falcons (45-17), and they're one victory away from getting back to the .500 mark. But they know they still have a long way to go before they're out of the woods, coach Jim Haslett said. "When you win, you always gain confidence as a football team," Haslett said. "Our guys have done a nice job of sticking together and hanging tight and fighting through the bad times. "We are not out of the woods yet," he said. "I think if we can keep doing what we are doing and keep practicing hard, then I think we can get out. I think there is a better feeling among our team." The Saints (3-4) can get back to .500 for the second time this season with a win over the NFC South-leading Panthers (5-1). The Saints were 1-1 after a win over the Houston Texans on Sept. 14, but three straight losses left them in the hole they're still trying to climb out of. Improved play on defense the last three weeks was accentuated by the team's best offensive performance of the season. The offense had 507 total yards, including 352 through the air, against the Falcons. They established season-highs in seven major offensive categories, including points and touchdowns as Aaron Brooks threw three touchdowns and no interceptions. And they continued to run the ball as Deuce McAllister rushed for his fourth straight 100-yard game with 116 yards on only 21 carries. "We have been running the ball fairly well all year," said Haslett, whose team is averaging 119.1 yards a game on the ground. "It has really been the passing game that we have been trying to execute better." Which is something they must do if they expect to build on the momentum they've gained in the last two weeks. "This game is important because we lost to them early and need to get it," Haslett said. "It would put us back in the middle of the hunt and them closer to the pack." SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. The Saints lead 9-8 after the Panthers won the first game this season, 19-13, in Charlotte on Oct. 5. The Saints had taken five straight in the series before the Panthers came back to win the last two.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--The Saints and Panthers have only played 17 times, but they've certainly been familiar foes lately. When they meet Sunday in the Superdome, it'll be the third time the Saints have played them in the past nine games.
They played in the 2002 season finale on Dec. 29 in the Superdome and then again on Oct. 5 in Ericsson Stadium. The Panthers won both games, 10-6 in New Orleans and 19-13 in Charlotte.
--Saints running back Deuce McAllister will try to equal the club record for consecutive 100-yard rushing days against the Panthers.
McAllister has hit the 100-yard mark in four straight games and one more would tie the franchise record set by Ricky Williams, who had five in a row in 2000.
--Quarterback Aaron Brooks was named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-17 win over the Falcons on Sunday. It was the 20th time Brooks has thrown for 250 yards or more in his 3 1/2 seasons with the Saints, giving him a share of the club record with Archie Manning and Bobby Hebert.
--The Saints scored a touchdown on their first possession of the game against the Falcons, the first time that happened in nearly a year. Brooks' 69-yard touchdown pass to Donte Stallworth on the third play from scrimmage was their first TD on an opening drive since they did it in a 35-27 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 20, 2002.
--The Saints continue to lead the NFL in third-down conversions after seven games. They've made first downs on 54 of 102 third-down opportunities for a 52.9 percent success rate.
--Wide receiver Joe Horn caught his 28th career scoring pass against the Falcons, a 32-yarder from Aaron Brooks, and moved into third place on the club's all-time list for receiving touchdowns. Horn trails only Eric Martin (48) and Danny Abramowicz (37).
--Also, Horn became only the third player in club history to reach 300 catches in the win over the Falcons. He now has 304 receptions and needs six more to move ahead of Abramowicz (309) on the team's all-time receiving list. Martin is the record holder with 532 catches.
--Horn did not speak with reporters on Wednesday and is apparently holding firm -- for now -- on his promise to not speak to the media for the rest of his career.
Horn, who is regarded one of the most talkative players in Saints' history, started his ban after Sunday's win over the Falcons. He politely declined to talk to reporters about the game and said his decision had nothing to do with anything that was said or written about him.
--Weak-side linebacker Derrick Rodgers will play in his 100th NFL game on Sunday.
--Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife, Grace, were honored Oct. 17 as "Humanitarians of the Year" by the Louisiana/Mississippi Chapter of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA).
The Bensons were honored for their compassion and generosity related to Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- Offensive plays of 20 yards or longer by the Saints in their blowout of the Falcons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I still think there is a lot of room for improvement. Execution-wise, we played fairly well (against the Falcons). We did all the little things right. But we're not where we want to be yet. Everybody knows it. We're still 3-4." -- Saints coach Jim Haslett on his team's recent improvement.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
MLB Orlando Ruff, who made his first start of the season against the Panthers on Oct. 5, continues to start in the Saints' 4-3 base defense. MLB Darrin Smith will again start on the strong side in place of the injured Sedrick Hodge.
--DT Kenny Smith will likely start Sunday if Grady Jackson can't play after undergoing surgery Wednesday for a torn ligament in his left pinkie finger.
--WR Donte Stallworth strained his left quadriceps muscle Sunday against the Falcons. He didn't practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable for the game with the Panthers.
--DT Grady Jackson had surgery Wednesday after tearing a ligament in his left pinkie finger against the Falcons. Saints coach Jim Haslett said Jackson, who returned to the game after having the finger X-rayed, may return to practice later in the week and is questionable for Sunday.
--WR/KR Michael Lewis did not practice Wednesday because of a sore groin. Lewis played in last week's game with the Falcons after missing the previous two. He experienced some soreness after the game and earlier in the week and is listed as probable for the Panthers.
--TE Ernie Conwell suffered a strained left shoulder against the Falcons, but is listed as probable for Sunday.
--SLB Sedrick Hodge practiced Wednesday for the first time since sustaining a hairline fracture of his lower right leg in Week 2. He's doubtful for Sunday's game, but Haslett said he would be evaluated later in the week to determine his availability for Sunday.
--DE Darren Howard, who had surgery on his dislocated right wrist on Sept. 8, will have the pins removed on Wednesday. Howard hopes to return to the lineup for a Nov. 16 game with the Falcons in the Superdome.
--LCB Dale Carter sprained his left ankle in the third quarter against the Falcons, but was able to finish the game after having the ankle re-taped. He was not on the injury report that was filed with the league office.
--OG P.J. Alexander, who was on the Saints' practice squad, was signed Tuesday by the Denver Broncos. Alexander made the 53-man roster this summer, but did not play in the first four games. He was cut on Oct. 4 when the Saints had injury problems and was signed to the practice squad three days later.
--OT Shawn Draper, who was with the Saints in training camp, was signed Wednesday to take Alexander's spot on the practice squad.
After finding their offense in last week's blowout of the Falcons, the Saints have some confidence on that side of the ball. They'll need it against the Panthers' defense, which is smarting after giving up 37 points in a loss to the Titans. Deuce McAllister has two straight 100-yard games against the Panthers, so getting him going early will certainly be a priority. If they can accomplish that, the Saints will try to take their shots against the NFL's 26th-ranked pass defense.
MATCHUP TO WATCH:
Saints offensive line and fullback Terrelle Smith vs. Panthers front seven. In their last meeting on Oct. 5, the Saints kept the Panthers' active front seven at bay most of the game. They helped paved the way for Deuce McAllister to rush for 124 yards on 23 carries and also did not allow a sack. Getting that kind of blocking -- both for the run and the pass -- will be a key for the Saints in the rematch.
Michael Lewis came back from a groin injury last week, and just in time. Donte Stallworth strained his left quadriceps muscle on the third play from scrimmage, which moved Lewis into the third receiver slot for the rest of the game. ================= CAROLINA PANTHERS =================
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES: --There was a time when Muhsin Muhammad would catch 100 passes a season. But that was under West Coast Offense lover George Seifert, not John Fox. "We don't throw the ball a lot and a couple of games in which we did Steve Smith has been on the receiving end of a lot of those passes," Muhammad said. "That is good for him and doing a lot for the offense, but I haven't had a lot of opportunities. "When I turn on the game film the things I judge things on when I watch the game film are, 'Am I running good routes? Am I getting open? Am I making the blocks I'm supposed to make? When I can judge myself on that I can say I'm doing a good job." Muhammad has also had his share of dropped passes this season.
--Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox said he isn't willing to give up on Dan Morgan despite the middle linebacker's seemingly never-ending string of injuries. Morgan, who has been bothered by a hamstring injury and a broken hand this season, suffered a concussion on the second play of the game Sunday and did not return as the Panthers lost 37-17 to the Tennessee Titans. "There have been a few pretty good football players who have had concussions," Fox said. "We had a couple of unfortunate ones yesterday. We'll just evaluate it and move on. He's still the best middle linebacker we have on our football team." Morgan, a former first-round draft pick out of Miami, came into the season having already missed almost 40 percent of his NFL starts because of injuries.
--Panthers safety Mike Minter had strong praise for Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who not only called for several short kickoffs on Sunday -- one of which the Titans recovered -- but also a fake punt that resulted in a touchdown. "That is great coaching," Minter said. "If coach Fox had done that I would have been saying what a great job it was with those calls. That was great coaching and he called the right plays at the right times."
--Despite being held to 20 yards on Sunday, Stephen Davis remains second in the NFC in rushing, one yard ahead of New Orleans' Deuce McAllister. McAllister goes for his fifth straight 100-yard rushing game on Sunday when he faces the Panthers.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Points allowed by the Panthers in the first quarter this season prior to giving up 17 against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is probably the most banged up we have been all season. It comes with the territory. We have different guys slotted in. Guys that are on our football team will have to step up." -- Panthers head coach John Fox on having eight players listed as "questionable" on the team's injury report this week.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Wide receiver Kevin Dyson said he plans to return to practice next Wednesday (Oct. 29). Dyson, who is on the team's PUP list, has until Nov. 3 to begin practicing with the team. At that point, the Panthers will have three weeks to determine whether or not to activate him to the 53-man roster of place him on IR. "I feel like a little kid where somebody has told him he can't go outside and play -- and now I'm allowed outside," Dyson said. "I'm excited to try to contribute." If Dyson can return to full speed he would give the Panthers another deep threat option along with Steve Smith and help keep defenses honest.
--LB Dan Morgan (concussion) is expected to play this week against the Saints.
--LB Brian Allen (groin) is listed as questionable, but said he feels like he will be ready for the Saints.
--DT Shane Burton is also questionable with a groin strain and that could be a concern if he doesn't play. Burton is scheduled to start for Brentson Buckner, who is likely to miss the game with a hip injury.
--DT Brentson Buckner probably will not play this week because of a hip injury. He did not work on Wednesday.
--DT Kindal Moorehead could see a lot of playing time this week of Shane Burton and Brentson Buckner don't play.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad did not practice Wednesday but is expected to work Thursday and play this week against the Saints. Muhammad is coming of a concussion.
--S Mike Minter is suffering from reoccurring back spasms and is listed as questionable this week.
--RB DeShaun Foster is expected to play this week despite a thumb injury. However, Stephen Davis will get the bulk of the carries.