NEW ORLEANS — The commonly accepted myth about the difficulty of beating a team three times in one season will be put to its latest test when the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints (11-5) host their division rivals Josh Jones Jersey , the Carolina Panthers (11-5), in a wild-card playoff game Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints turned around an 0-2 season by beating the Panthers 34-13 in Charlotte in Week 3, igniting an eight-game winning streak. They then beat them in the Superdome 31-21 on Dec. 3.

Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, teams that swept the regular-season series also won the playoff game 13 of 20 times, a 65 percent edge.

The Saints are not banking their hopes on statistical probabilities but on a balanced offense that does not rely on 45 throws a game by Drew Brees and on a revitalized defense that so far has withstood a withering number of injuries to starters.

Brees, who will turn 39 on Jan. 15, said he does feel an internal clock ticking on his career but treats every game with respect.

“I prepare like every game could be my last or (like) it’s a playoff game or I’ve got something to prove and I’ve got an edge,” Brees said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, the playoffs are here, it’s time to ramp it up or things are a little more important.’ It’s always important for me.”

There were some common threads in the Saints’ two regular-season victories over Carolina. The Panthers are ranked No. 7 in the NFL on defense, allowing 317.2 yards per game, and just 88.1 yards rushing, third best in the league. But Carolina yielded their most yards rushing this season to the Saints — 149 yards in Week 3 and 148 in Week 13.

That’s a credit to rookie sensation Alvin Kamara and veteran running back Mark Ingram as well as to the Saints’ offensive line. Brees is the biggest beneficiary of a powerful running attack that is averaging 4.7 yards per carry Bart Starr Jersey , best in the NFL, and 129.4 yards per game, fifth in the league.

Brees threw 137 fewer passes this year (536) but connected on 386 for an NFL-record 72.0 completion percentage. His 4,334 passing yards are nearly 800 yards fewer than his 2016 totals but just about equal to his 4,388 passing yards in 2009, the Saints’ Super Bowl season.

“Sure is nice,” Brees said, smiling. “Does it change the way I prepare? No. Does it change my mindset going into a game? No. It’s just that when you add up the number of throws … if you take away five, seven, 10 attempts a game and those are going to the run game, that means you’re doing something right in the run game, and it probably means you’re playing good defense. It doesn’t force me to take as many chances.”

The Saints also have done an excellent job putting a vise around Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who happens to be the Panthers’ leading rusher. Newton has passed for just 350 yards in the two losses. He threw three interceptions in the first meeting, including one in the end zone. He is a dangerous runner Bryan Bulaga Jersey , but his only gash run against the Saints this year was a 32-yard scramble in garbage time.

The Panthers could have won the NFC South outright last week but were hamstrung by an inept offensive performance in a 22-10 loss to the Falcons. Newton completed just 14 of 34 passes for 180 yards and was picked off three times.

Newton said the Panthers have erased that game from their memory banks and are poised to make a playoff statement.

“This is when real football starts,” said Newton, who led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015 with a 15-1 regular-season record. “(We’re) explaining it to the young guys and the guys who haven’t witnessed playoff football. This is where you are made or broke. I look forward to these types of moments because it brings out the best in individuals because there is so much pressure. We all know what they say about pressure — it does one of two things — and we’re hoping to shine like diamonds.”

Each team will have a significant player available who did not play in either of the first two games: Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, who has been battling a foot injury all season, and Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Saints coach Sean Payton said if Olsen is healthy, it could pose a threat to his defense because Olsen is “one of the better tight ends in the game. Not having him is significant and having him is huge.”

Carolina coach Ron Rivera knows that Lattimore, who made the Pro Bowl, can help the Saints shut down any deep threat the Panthers have. Lattimore normally shadows the opponent’s best receiver, so he may draw Devin Funchess, who has 63 catches for 840 yards.

“When I watch (Lattimore), he’s a terrific football player,” Rivera said.

The Panthers hope to have guard Trai Turner back after missing three games with concussion symptoms. Saints starting left tackle Terron Armstead (thigh) and wide receiver Michael Thomas (hamstring) were limited in practice on Wednesday but should be able to go.

The Eagles are playing some of their best football heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots.

One thing Philadelphia can’t contend with is New England’s huge experience advantage in the big game.

On the 53-man active roster the Patriots brought to Minnesota, 32 players have a combined 60 games of Super Bowl experience.

Tom Brady alone has been to the Super Bowl seven times during his 18-year career, winning five.

By comparison Dave Robinson Jersey , the Eagles have seven players on their active roster who’ve won a Super Bowl. Two of those players, LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long, won their rings last season with the Patriots. The others are Torrey Smith, Malcolm Jenkins, Corey Graham, Dannell Ellerbe and Will Beatty. An eighth player, Chris Maragos, is on injured reserve with a knee injury.

It’s a huge gulf. By comparison, the 2015 Panthers that lost to the Broncos in the Super Bowl that season had three players who had won a ring: Ed Dickson (Baltimore), Roman Harper (New Orleans) and Michael Oher (Baltimore).

But the Patriots say it’s nothing they will spend time talking about this week.

”I think it’s overrated,” said special teams captain Matt Slater, who will be appearing in his fourth Super Bowl.

Defensive end Trey Flowers said the coaching staff hasn’t mentioned last year’s Super Bowl win since it came up in film study prior to their regular-season meeting with Atlanta back in October.

”It’s a brand new team, so I wouldn’t say last year’s experience will have anything to do with the outcome of this game,” Flowers said. ”This team has a lot of different guys from a year ago Ryan Jensen Color Rush Jersey , so it’s something you’ve got to do all over again as far as experience goes.”

Yes and no.

New England actually returns 31 players who were on last year’s Super Bowl roster against the Falcons. That doesn’t include injured linebacker Dont’a Hightower or receiver Julian Edelman.

Two of the Patriots’ additions since then both played in the Super Bowl with other teams. Linebacker James Harrison won two rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois played on the San Francisco 49ers team that came up short against Baltimore in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season.

”We know what to expect, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to perform,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. ”So there’s really no upper hand. You’ve got to just play the game and get ready for it and play at a high level.”

He said that is because there is respect across the board for what backup quarterback Nick Foles has accomplished since Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14.

”Everyone wants to hate on Nick Foles, but he’s done a great job,” Van Noy said. ”He’s still a high-caliber quarterback, like Carson Wentz. Nick Foles is a great quarterback who’s done a great job. They distribute the ball really well and their run game is at a high level.”

More than experience on either side, linebacker Elandon Roberts said the biggest challenge is not getting caught up in the emotions that come with playing in a Super Bowl.

”Obviously it’s all the marbles right here, but it’s everything you work for,” Roberts said. ”So you’ve got to think back to what got you here: doing your job, not getting overwhelmed and what not. As long as we do that that takes away most of it.”


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