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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – While much of the talk was about whether New Orleans could win a big game — or any game, for that matter — on the road, the conversation in the Saints' locker room was about something completely different.
The Saints weren't focused on breaking a seven-game road losing streak dating to last season. They were stinging from their four-point loss at Carolina last December that allowed the Panthers to take control of the NFC South lead and eventually win the division title.
So New Orleans' 28-10 victory Thursday night left the Saints (4-4) feeling pretty good.
"We knew we had a chance to take control of the division," said Mark Ingram, who ran for 100 yards on 30 carries. "We lost to them here at the end of last year so we felt like we left something here. We had to come back and take care of business."
Said Saints coach Sean Payton: "We had a hard loss here last year, a tough loss. At halftime, we talked about that finish."
The Saints are .500 for the first time this season and right that is good enough to lead the NFC South. And they are clearly playing better than any of their division rivals.
Here are some things we learned from the Saints' victory over the Panthers (3-5-1):
SAINTS COME RUNNING IN: The Saints are dangerous enough with Drew Brees, but the idea of the New Orleans having a running game is downright scary. Ingram has rushed for 272 yards and three touchdowns in back-to-back wins. "It wasn't always pretty, and yet, we were able to control the game a little bit," Payton said. "That was a big plus." The Saints are putting up big numbers with Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson still out with injuries.
HARDY GONE FOR SEASON: The Panthers certainly need help on defense, but it isn't going to come in the form of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy. A person familiar with the situation says Hardy's domestic violence appeal trial set for Nov. 17 has been postponed until next year, meaning his season — and his career — with Carolina could be over. The Panthers placed Hardy on the exempt-commissioner's permission list Sept. 17. He isn't allowed to return until after his trial is resolved. He will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
WHERE'S THE OFFENSE: The Panthers have failed to break the 10-point plateau in each of the last two games. Cam Newton has not thrown a TD pass in either game, although rookie Kelvin Benjamin has dropped two passes in the end zone. "Everybody's looking for a magic play," said Newton, who misfired on 18 of 28 passes and threw for 151 yards. "Everybody's looking for somebody to say something, for somebody to do something and take responsibility for themselves. I know I am. I need to be better."
BENJAMIN'S STRUGGLES: For the second straight week, Panthers rookie Benjamin dropped a potential TD pass in the end zone. Newton bailed him out by rushing for a touchdown a few plays later, but it's becoming a problem for a team that is struggling to put points on the board. "I thought the ball was delivered at a pretty good spot," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the drop. "It was coming in hot and there was a defender on him but he has made those catches and as he grows and develops as a receiver he'll know he has to make all those plays."
PROTECTING CAM: Clearly Carolina's injuries on the offensive line have become an issue. The injury-plagued Panthers played without three starters on the offensive line, including left tackle Byron Bell. Both starting guards were also out. Against the Saints the Panthers started a pair of undrafted rookies in left tackle David Foucault and left guard Andrew Norwell. "I thought our young guys fought and battled and tried to do the best they can," Rivera said. "They came up against a veteran defense as well that did some things that were a little different. I thought our young guys tried to hang in there and do the best they could."
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