Saints face Panthers for third time this season

Jan 4, 2018 - 1:17 AM METARIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints offense was less productive in the final four games of the regular season than it was during the first 12 games.

But in their wild-card playoff game Sunday, they will be a facing a Carolina team against which they had two of their more productive games of the season.

Perhaps seeing the Panthers will be just what the doctor ordered.

Or perhaps the offense's struggles will continue, though New Orleans played well enough to win two of its last three and claim the NFC South title by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker with Carolina.

In the first 12 games of the season, the Saints averaged 29.9 points, 408 yards, 4.97 yards per rush and 268 yards passing. In the last four games they averaged 23.8 points, 339 yards, 3.59 yards per rush and 253 passing yards.

In 34-13 and 31-21 victories over the Panthers, the Saints averaged 381 yards, 5.4 yards per rush and 232 passing yards.

"I think there are a number of things we have to improve on if we are going to play well in the playoffs," head coach Sean Payton said. "Our tempo has been sluggish. We have to eliminate pre-snap penalties. Our third-down numbers have to be better."

New Orleans led the NFL in third-down conversion percentage last season, but this season it ranked 19th (37.6 percent). It was even worse the last four games, converting 33.3 percent.

The Saints converted 44 percent against the Panthers.

"If you break up the third-and-longs, those hold up (and) the third-and-1," Payton said. "But that third down and two, three, four and five, we have been below average at and we have got to do a lot better."

Both victories against the Panthers were pivotal. The first came after a 0-2 start and began an eight-game winning streak.

"We were eager," wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. "We knew (the 0-2 start) wasn't us. We knew what we had in this locker room. We knew if we were going to be who we wanted to be we had to turn it around somehow."

The rematch came a week after the eight-game win streak had ended in a 26-20 loss at the Los Angeles Rams. The Saints (11-5), who lost at Tampa Bay, 31-24, in the regular-season finale last week, have not lost consecutive games since the 0-2 start.

SERIES HISTORY: 47th all-time meeting. Panthers lead series, 24-22, going 12-11 both at home and on the road. The Saints defeated the Panthers, 34-13, in Week 3 in Charlotte, N.C., and 31-21 in Week 13 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. These teams have met twice per season as division rivals since Carolina joined the league in 1995, but this is the first time they have met in the playoffs.

--Eight of the players on the Saints' 53-man roster have playoff experience with New Orleans -- quarterback Drew Brees, punter Thomas Morstead, defensive end Cameron Jordan, quarterback Chase Daniel, tackle Terron Armstead, safety Rafael Bush, tight end Josh Hill and running back Mark Ingram II. Only Brees and Morstead played on the 2009 Super Bowl team. Fifteen Saints have playoff experience with other teams.

--The Saints placed tight end TE Garrett Griffin (foot) on injured reserve and re-signed tight end John Phillips, who was waived last week when offensive lineman John Fullington was elevated from the practice roster to the active roster.

NOTES: QB Drew Brees was back with the team Wednesday after spending Monday and Tuesday with family in Texas for the funeral of his grandfather. ... T Terron Armstead (thigh) was limited in practice Wednesday. ... WR Michael Thomas (hamstring), G Senio Kelemete (knee), TE Josh Hill (shoulder), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion), DE Trey Hendrickson (ankle) and CB Justin Hardee (foot) were limited in practice on Wednesday.

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