CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints appear headed in different directions.
The unbeaten Panthers are off to their best start since 2003, the year the franchise went to its only Super Bowl, following a 27-22 win over New Orleans on Sunday. The Saints are mired in a 0-3 hole, three games behind the Panthers and Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South.
There are no holdovers from the Carolina team that lost the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. But the Panthers, who have won two straight NFC South titles, are looking to continue their recent tradition of winning.
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For the third straight week, they were able to close out a tight game.
''There are not many games where things go easy for us or we don't break the score away,'' said tight end Greg Olsen, who had two TD catches on Sunday. ''... We have to earn everything, and I think as a result, we have a lot of guys with a lot of character and a lot of resiliency, and no matter what, we just keep on swinging and keep on going. I think it's a product of our culture around here, a product of everything we've been through together.''
As for the Saints, it's rather unusual to see them averaging just 16 points per game.
Coach Sean Payton doesn't believe New Orleans is in a do-or-die situation, but players know they aren't making it easy on themselves.
''This is not where we want to be right now,'' center Max Unger said of the winless start. ''This is a pretty tough spot to get yourself out of, and it's pretty cliche, but you have to win one and pile it up and turn your head around a little late in the season and see where you are at. ''
Observations from Saints-Panthers:
PANTHERS INJURIES: The Panthers lost two key starters to injuries in the fourth quarter - running back Jonathan Stewart (leg) and defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring). Neither returned to the game. Also, linebacker Thomas Davis injured his right shoulder, although he was able to stay in the game. Coach Ron Rivera offered no update on their status after the game. On the bright side, the Panthers hope to get Luke Kuechly back next Sunday against Tampa Bay after the middle linebacker missed the last two games with a concussion.
RUNNING GAME WOES: One of the biggest problems for the Saints this year is finding consistency in the running game. They gained 70 yards on Sunday, but averaged only 2.9 yards per carry. For the season, the Saints are averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. Carolina, on the other hand, has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of its last 14 games dating back to last season.
NORMAN SOARING: Panthers cornerback Josh Norman had the play of the game, leaping in the end zone to intercept a Luke McCown pass with 1:09 left in the game and seal Carolina's victory. It was the second pick of the season for Norman, who is in the midst of a contract year for Carolina. ''He's a playmaker,'' coach Ron Rivera said.
BREES FROM THE SIDELINE: Drew Brees sat out his first game due to injury since joining the Saints in 2006, but did whatever he could to help out McCown from the sideline. In fact, McCown said, ''I told him a little while ago that literally it was like I could feel you in the huddle beside of me calling the play. I appreciate everything that he does for me.''
NEWTON ON A ROLL: Cam Newton might be playing the best football of his career. Through three games, he has five TD passes and two rushing scores with only two interceptions, one of which went off the hands of his receiver. Newton threw for 315 yards against the Saints, raising his quarterback rating for the season to 85.6.
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