Saints, Panthers square off for division lead

by Walter Pierce

Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have to find a way to win on the road if they plan to take over first place in the NFC South.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have to find a way to win on the road if they plan to take over first place in the NFC South.

That's something they haven't been able to do this season.

The Saints are 3-0 at home but 0-4 away from the Superdome entering Thursday night's critical division game at Carolina (3-4-1).

It's not that the Saints haven't been close. Three of their four road losses have been by three points or less. Their only lopsided effort was a 21-point loss at Dallas.

"If it was something where we could say that is the reason and cause, it would be easy to turn around and fix," Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. "There are a lot of things that are going to go into it. ... If it was as simple as the beds are different or the food is different, we would just change those things. But it's not that simple."

Drew Brees said the Saints have felt good about their game plan on the road, but simply aren't executing as well as when they play at home. That is a continuing trend for the Saints, 6-14 on the road the past three seasons.

The Saints and Panthers split last year's season series in two completely different December games.

Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints' 31-13 win over the Panthers at the Louisiana Superdome. Two weeks later, the Panthers intercepted Brees twice and limited him to 281 yards passing on a wet outdoor field in Charlotte and won 17-13.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles in Carolina's win.

"I haven't quite figured it out," Kuechly said of the Saints' struggles on the road. "But the one thing you know is they show how good they can be at home. I don't know what the deal is on the road, but anytime you have Drew Brees you can be dangerous."

Other things to look for Thursday night:

WILLIAMS ON THE RUN: The Panthers are thrilled to have DeAngelo Williams back to pair with Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. The franchise's all-time leading rusher has missed the last four games with an ankle injury and six games overall this season. "It'll be a nice boost," coach Ron Rivera said. "When he and Jonathan get rolling and doing the things they do, that's a huge thing for us. That could be a nice shot in the arm."

BIG SHOULDERS: Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is showing significant progress from his Week 5 shoulder injury. In his first game back at Detroit, Brees threw to him only twice and he did not have a catch. "I guess I was more of a decoy," Graham said. A week later against Green Bay, Graham played 62 percent of New Orleans' offensive snaps and caught five passes for 59 yards, including a 22-yard TD. "I just want to be there for the guys," said Graham, who has caught a touchdown pass in five straight games against the Panthers.

OH CANADA: The Panthers will turn to an undrafted rookie from Canada to protect Cam Newton's blind side. David Foucault, who played his college football in Montreal and made the Panthers roster after a spring minicamp tryout, will make his NFL starting debut at left tackle. Byron Bell is out with an injured knee and elbow. The 6-foot-8, 305-pound Foucault played 30 snaps last week against Seattle at both tackle positions after Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler went down with injuries. Chandler will start at right tackle.

LACK OF SACK ATTACK: Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy had three sacks in the last meeting with the Saints, but he won't be a factor this time. Hardy is appealing his conviction of two domestic violence charges and is still not on the team's active roster. Carolina's pass rush has suffered without him. Midway through the season the Panthers are on pace for 32 sacks after leading the league with 60 in 2013.

GROUND GAINS: Strief says it's always easier to run block than pass block on the road. Fortunately for the Saints, they have a credible running game this season. Last Sunday, Mark Ingram rushed for 172 yards and a score. When Ingram was hurt earlier this season, Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson ran well. As a team, the Saints average 5.1 yards per rush, which ranks second in the NFL behind Seattle.