NFL Preview - New Orleans (3-4) at Carolina (3-4-1) (ET)

(SportsNetwork.com) - Reaching .500 is usually not the recipe for first place in any sport but that's exactly where the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers find themselves as the two NFC South rivals get ready to meet on "Thursday Night Football."

The winner of Thursday's contest at Bank of America Stadium will take over sole possession of the top spot in the division, a testament to just how bad the NFC South has been thus far.

A Week 8 loss to Seattle dropped the Panthers to 3-4-1, percentage points clear of New Orleans, which is 3-4 and coming off its most impressive win of the season, a 44-23 drubbing of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The 2-6 Falcons and 1-6 Buccaneers round out the disappointing foursome.

"If you said at the start of training camp or OTAs, 'hey, you have a chance in Week 9 to be playing for first place, would you take it?' Yeah, I'd take it," offensive coordinator Mike Shula told the Panthers' website. "That's the mindset. You have to keep moving forward and forget about what's happened."

The Saints will arrive in the Queen City knowing they are 0-4 away from the Bayou this season and have lost seven straight regular-season games away from New Orleans dating back to 2013.

Carolina has its own concerns, most notably a 1-4-1 record over the last six games following a 2-0 start to the season.

"The truth of the matter is we had opportunities and we didn't make them on both sides of the ball," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "You have to take advantage of opportunities in the red zone by putting the ball in the end zone. When you have third down and long, you have to be able to stop them."

The Panthers were inside the red zone on their first two possessions last Sunday against Seattle and came away with two field goals. Later, they suffered a turnover inside the 20-yard line. As a result, all of the Carolina scoring in a 13-9 loss came from three Graham Gano field goals.

The Seahawks, who have never lost three straight games with Russell Wilson under center, were on the verge of doing exactly that in Charlotte before Wilson willed his team to a come-from-behind road victory, firing a touchdown pass to tight end Luke Willson with 47 seconds remaining to lift Seattle to the hard-fought win.

Cam Newton struggled for the second straight week for Carolina, completing just 12-of-22 passes for 171 yards and an interception. He missed both of his throws and was sacked twice on the Panthers' final possession.

"We didn't play our best football," Newton admitted. "The next opportunity awaits on Thursday and I'm anticipating that to be a great game for us."

Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin continued to be a bright spot offensively for Carolina, recording four catches for 94 yards, including a career-long 51- yard reception in the fourth quarter to set up one of the team's three field goals. Benjamin currently leads NFC rookies with 571 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

For the Saints, Drew Brees tossed three touchdown passes in Week 8 as New Orleans pulled away in the second half during the triumph over Green Bay.

The game was deadlocked at 16 at halftime, but the Saints intercepted the red- hot Rodgers twice over an 11-attempt span in the final 30 minutes, quite the accomplishment because the veteran QB hadn't tallied a pick in his previous 213 throws.

Brees, meanwhile, completed all 11 of his passes in the second half and finished 27-of-32 overall for 311 yards.

Mark Ingram carried the ball 24 times for 172 yards and a touchdown and Brandin Cooks caught six passes for 94 yards and a score and added a 4-yard TD run for the Saints, who squandered a fourth-quarter lead for the third time this year in the prior week's 24-23 loss at Detroit.

Jimmy Graham hauled in all five of his receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown in the second half in the triumph.

"I think the tempo was better today and I think that's something we'll continue to emphasize," Brees said.

Division foes since Carolina's inaugural NFL season in 1995 -- first in the NFC West from 1995-2001 and now the NFC South beginning in 2002 -- the Panthers and Saints will be meeting for the 39th time with Carolina holding a slim 20-18 advantage in the all-time series.

The two clubs will meet again in Week 14 in New Orleans.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Brees generally excels at night. Since joining New Orleans in 2006, the star signal caller has led the Saints to an impressive 22-10 mark in primetime games, the third-best record of any team during that span.

And despite their pedestrian record the Saints have been as explosive as ever offensively and are tops in the NFC, averaging 445.4 yards per game, far ahead of Carolina (332.5 YPG).

Brees in second in the conference with 2,227 passing yards but the issue has been ball security and New Orleans has a minus-six turnover ratio coming in, a stark contrast to the Panthers' positive plus-four mark.

"Certainly there's all sorts of goals and there's big picture, small picture and I think what we've tried to do is really focus on the smallest picture - and that's our own team getting better," Saints coach Sean Payton said.

New Orleans cleaned up things against the Pack and were plus-two in that game so it's possible the worm has turned or at least the impact of Ingram's game against the dismal Green Bay run defense created more balance and enabled Brees to stop forcing the issue.

If that's the case, the recipe could be there for a sequel because the Carolina D is a far cry from the unit that dominated in 2013 and is surrendering 378.5 YPG, slightly better than the often-maligned NOLA stop unit which is giving up about 12 yards more per contest.

The Panthers gave up at least 37 points-or-more in four of their previous games until righting the ship a bit against the Seahawks. The main struggle has been to stop the run, as Carolina has surrendered 135.2 YPG on the ground, 28th best in a 32-team league.

Offensively the Panthers hope to solve their red-zone woes and turn those Gano 3s into 7s. Carolina's 46.2 percent TD efficiency inside the 20 is also 28th in football.

"It's tough when you don't score touchdowns and miss opportunities," Rivera said. "You have to make hay down in the red zone."

The offense could be in line for a boost with the potential return of running back DeAngelo Williams, who has missed the previous four games with a balky ankle.

"It'll be a nice boost," said Rivera. "When he and Jonathan (Stewart) get rolling and doing the things they do that's a huge thing for us. That could be a nice shot in the arm."

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me five times? Let's just say it's tough to pick the Saints away from the Superdome but this is the team trending in the right direction and no one is happy about the way Carolina is looking.

Furthermore, despite that lack of road success, New Orleans has been very close to getting over the hump, leading into the fourth quarter in three of their four road setbacks this season and losing those games by a total of just six points.

So, let's be a glutton for punishment one more time here and figure on Payton and Co. finally figuring out a way to finally win one outdoors.

"There's no more important game than this quick turnaround, the Thursday night game at Carolina," said Brees. "This was the team that won the division last year. We are going to need our best performance to beat them."

Sports Network predicted outcome: Saints 23, Panthers 20

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