Panthers staying grounded as down-and-out Saints come to Carolina

Updated: October 4, 2003, 11:56 AM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's something appealing about the opportunity to kick a team when it is down, and the New Orleans Saints are definitely down right now.

The Saints (1-3) have dropped three straight, punctuated by a 55-21 loss to Indianapolis last week. With Carolina (3-0) up next Sunday, the Panthers should be ready to pounce.

But the Panthers aren't expecting to pile on. In fact, they're more concerned then ever about the Saints.

"I certainly wish we weren't playing New Orleans this week," said quarterback Jake Delhomme, who spent five seasons with the Saints as a backup. "I know some of those guys down there, and when their backs are against the wall, they come out ready to go."

So instead of looking for every opportunity to capitalize, the Panthers are guarding against going into the game too confident of certain victory.

"They are the most dangerous kind of team right now," receiver Steve Smith said. "They are willing to take any gamble, use all kinds of gimmicks, and try to win the game. We have to be disciplined and ready for all of that."

The Saints are desperately trying to regroup, holding a players-only meeting after the Indy loss in which the players recommitted themselves to saving the season.

"That was a very embarrassing effort put out on the field," quarterback Aaron Brooks said. "I'm sure it won't happen again."

But preventing another debacle won't be easy with a team devastated by injuries. New Orleans headed into the weekend with four players listed as out for the game and five as doubtful.

Hardest hit is the defense, where the Saints are expected to have just 18 healthy players. Seven projected starters have been lost since the preseason.

"In this business, you get injuries," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "It's a bad time to have them, but you have to deal with them the best way you can and try to adapt your system around the players you have."

The Saints are also expected to be without Michael Lewis, their game-changing kick returner, and left tackle Wayne Gandy. That's bad news against a Carolina team with 11 sacks in three games.

Defensive end Julius Peppers is particularly licking his chops, still in search of upping his sacks this season.

Peppers, who had 12 in 12 games last year, has just one sack this season along with seven tackles and four quarterback pressures. But he's been double-teamed by most offenses, freeing teammate Mike Rucker to register an NFL-best five sacks this season.

Peppers thinks he's close to breaking through for a big game.

"I'm still around the quarterback," he said. "I'm still getting hurries and still letting them know that I'm there. I'm not worrying about how many sacks I have because they're going to come."

But Peppers isn't assuming it will come against the Saints.

"New Orleans is real desperate right now," he said. "They got embarrassed on national TV, so they are probably going to come out a little bit fired up."

Games between the Saints and Panthers usually pack a little extra punch.

The Panthers knocked New Orleans out of playoff contention last year with a 10-6 victory in the season-finale in Louisiana. Before the game even started, Carolina's defensive players argued with New Orleans receiver Joe Horn and it lasted throughout the game.

So no one will be surprised if the trash-talking starts early in the NFC South contest.

"I think it's the nature of our division right now," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "You've got a division based on teams being physical. That's the way you want it.

"You want to line up every Sunday and have that little animosity between each other. It makes for better football."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index