|National Football League|
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By KEVIN CHROUST
(AP) -- The Carolina Panthers can become the second team in the NFL to win nine straight games this season. Doing so will require them to hand the New Orleans Saints their first home loss of 2013 on Sunday night, with the winner taking control of the NFC South.
"There is no roof, no sky," Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said. "We're going up. Every person on this team, every coach on this team has the same mentality right now. I feel like it's contagious. Fans are getting it. They feel like they can't be beat."
This matchup of the two 9-3 teams in the South is the first of two in a three-week span.
After Sunday's 27-6 win over Tampa Bay, which had won three straight, the Panthers will match their stingy defense against Drew Brees and New Orleans' high-powered attack. Carolina is allowing a league-low 13.1 points per game and 289.8 yards, second best in the NFL.
The Saints haven't lost consecutive games in a single regular season under coach Sean Payton since 2009, but they're looking vulnerable after a 34-7 rout at Seattle on Monday.
"It's a setback and now you're on a short week, but we have to make the corrections," Payton said. "We can't just say it didn't happen. But that being said, we have to quickly get focused on Carolina. They're playing as good football as anybody in the league right now."
That short week got even shorter due to a delay with the Saints' charter flight that forced them to stay over in Seattle on Monday. New Orleans didn't get home until after 3 p.m. local time Tuesday, nearly 12 hours after they had planned to return.
The Panthers have won four straight on the road and were the last team to beat New Orleans at the Superdome, 44-38 on Dec. 20. The Saints have outscored opponents 199-95 during their six home victories this year.
Carolina beat the Saints twice last year after losing the previous four matchups.
As good as Carolina has been defensively, coach Ron Rivera knows his team is in for a challenge in holding down New Orleans at home.
"There are a lot of things they're doing offensively that make you say, 'Wow,'" Rivera told the team's official website. "A lot of people thought last year that Jimmy Graham had an off-year, but now watching him he looks like he's in the form he was two years ago. Darren Sproles, I've got a bottle of Tums next to me because he is a heck of a football player. And Drew Brees is having a classic Drew Brees season."
The Seahawks, however, showed it's possible to shut the Saints down. Their seven points matched the fewest they've scored since Payton took over in 2006, while their 188 total yards are the fewest in that time.
Brees' 147 passing yards was his lowest total in a complete game since throwing for 132 on Dec. 24, 2006 against the New York Giants.
Both of those games were on the road, though Brees said Monday's embarrassment had very little to do with location.
"The weather did not play a factor. The noise? It's loud, yes, it's tough to communicate ... but I felt like we did a good job communicating," Brees said. "We were prepared for that. We just got outplayed."
Brees has cracked 300 yards in each of the six home games this season, with 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. His 122.2 home passer rating is second in the league to that of Aaron Rodgers.
New Orleans is averaging 33.2 points at home, trailing only Denver and Dallas.
Carolina's Cam Newton went 18 of 29 for 263 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Bucs. He ran for another, but was displeased with the picks after throwing four in his previous seven games.
The team has turned the ball over seven times in the last eight games and is one of five teams with a plus-10 turnover margin or better.
"We don't want to get accustomed to the careless mistakes, but we're just going to have games like this," Newton said. "We know that we're going to have to minimize these turnovers."
That's especially true against New Orleans, which has given the ball away 14 times, among the lowest totals in the league.
The Panthers will have top pass rusher Charles Johnson back after he missed the last two games with a sprained knee. The defensive end leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks and had two in the clubs' last meeting.
Running back DeAngelo Williams will also return after missing the Tampa Bay game with a bruised quadriceps, and linebacker Chase Blackburn will play after missing three games with a foot injury.
Updated December 6, 2013