NEW ORLEANS — This is what it has come to for the defending NFC champion Panthers.
Either they beat the Saints in the Superdome on Sunday or they fall into last place in the NFC South by themselves with 10 games to go.
"You don't expect to start this way," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It's a situation we are in now, and it's all about how you're going to respond from it."
On its face, the matchup of the Saints (1-3) and Panthers (1-4) has the look of a game between two struggling teams who very well might be going nowhere this season.
On the other hand, it could make for a desperate, high-stakes affair, given both teams are trying to salvage their season and believe it is still early enough to do so.
"We're not looking at them as a 1-4 team. We're looking at them as the returning NFC champions. We know that, and just like when I was on a Super Bowl team, the next year, you get the best of every team," said Saints fullback John Kuhn, who played in the Super Bowl with Green Bay.
"This is two really good football teams going at each other. Throw the records out. Anybody watching this game is not going to be unsatisfied. We've only played a quarter of the season. You've seen it in years past, especially with this division — anything can happen. We've got a lot of football left in front of us. So do they. It starts this week. We both understand what's going on."
And it's not as if either team has been on the wrong end of many lopsided scores. Both teams have each lost games by three points and one point. Those games came down to the final possession and a play here or there could have tipped the balance.
The Panthers also played without star quarterback Cam Newton on Monday night against the Bucs and lost by three only on a last-second field goal.
The win put the Bucs in second place in the division, behind the Falcons (4-1), at 2-4.
Newton, who had been held out because of a concussion, has been cleared to play Sunday as the Panthers try to keep pace with the ever-prolific offense designed by Saints coach Sean Payton and executed by QB Drew Brees.
"We know the team we're playing is a championship-level team that has lost some tough, close games," Payton said. "We're going to have to be at our best."
Here are some other story lines to watch as the Panthers invade the Superdome:
NEWTON'S NUMBERS: The Saints might be just what a struggling Newton needs. Newton, whose quarterback rating of 80.2 ranks 32nd in the league, often has played well against New Orleans, whose defense has been rated among the NFL's worst in three of the past four seasons and is again ranked 31st so far this season. Newton threw for 331 yards and five touchdowns last season at the Superdome and has 10 touchdowns and one interception in the past three games against New Orleans.
HOPEFUL HISTORY: The Saints can look at their own franchise history for examples of why they still might emerge as playoff contenders — if they can win this week. Under the current NFL playoff system, the Saints have twice made the playoffs after starting a season 1-3 — once in 1990 and once in 2000.
"We're trying to be an ascending team — a team that is trying to get better each and every week," Brees said. "I feel like we have gotten better. We have learned and grown."
WHERE'S THE RUSH? Panthers starting defensive ends Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson have yet to register a sack this season through five games. Ealy said a major reason for that is opposing quarterbacks are getting the ball out quicker, giving the team's front four less time to get to the quarterback.
"Obviously quarterbacks are doing it for a reason, offensive coordinators are game-planning that way for a reason," Ealy said. "They know what our front can do. It would be crazy for them to just be lax back there and know we are going to pressure with four or sometimes five guys. We see it as a sign of respect."
GETTING DEFENSIVE: Although the Saints rank second-to-last in the NFL defensively, there have been signs of hope for the struggling unit. New Orleans ranks 13th in the NFL in red zone defense and tied for seventh in the league in limiting TDs on opposing offenses' goal-to-go scenarios. Also, New Orleans' much-maligned defense came up with a pair of fumble recoveries and an interception in the fourth quarter of their comeback win in their game at San Diego on Oct. 2. Now they're rested after a bye last week.
STEWART'S RETURN: The Panthers are hoping to get Jonathan Stewart back on the field after the team's starting running back missed the past three games with a hamstring injury. When healthy, Stewart is difficult to bring down and can be among the best running backs in the league. If Stewart can't go, the Panthers will turn to Cameron Artis-Payne, who ran for two touchdowns against the Bucs on Monday night.