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John DeShazier: Brandin Cooks-Josh Norman matchup one to watch Sunday

Saints top receiver will be matched against Panthers top DB

One foot. Sixty-nine seconds.

The former is about how much farther Luke McCown's end zone pass attempt to Brandin Cooks needed to be for the spiral to be plucked out of the air by Cooks instead of a leaping Carolina cornerback Josh Norman; the latter, the amount of time the New Orleans Saints defense then would've had to prevent the Panthers from maneuvering into position for a possible game-tying, or game-winning, field goal on Sept. 27.

Carolina eked out a 27-22 victory over the Saints in the first game that quarterback Drew Brees has missed as a Saint due to injury, with McCown and Cooks failing to connect for what would have been the eighth time that day, a 23-yard hookup that would've given Cooks 102 receiving yards.

Would Cooks relish such a scenario unfolding again Sunday, when the Saints (4-7) play the Panthers (11-0) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 3:25 p.m.?

"I would love that," he said. "But I feel like we don't want to be in that position in the first place. We want to put more points on the board than we did that last game. So that's our focus."

Thus, Cooks said, reflecting on that particular play is a non-starter.

"I'm not thinking about that anymore," he said.

What can be thought about and considered is a game full of man-to-man matchups between Cooks, the Saints' leading receiver (55 catches for 736 yards and six touchdowns), and Norman, arguably the best cornerback in the league this season (four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns).

"He's a very complete player at the corner position," Brees said of Norman. "There are some guys that you're like, 'He's a really good cover guy, but he doesn't want to tackle,' or, 'He's really good in zone but he's not good in man.'

"This guy is really the total package. He's good in zone, he's very good in man, great instincts, great anticipation and he'll come up and make tackles. He's made all kinds of plays tackling ball carriers, getting the ball out, just doing things that most corners don't necessarily like to do, he has no problem doing."

That opinion is shared by Saints Coach Sean Payton.

"We've seen (Norman) grow and have seen him over the years," Payton said. "I would say this – there is not a corner having a better season than he is right now. He gets matched versus the best receiver each week and you break the huddle offensively and he is meeting that receiver before he gets aligned. He's ready to go and is ready to compete.

"Certainly, there is a ton of respect on our part for what he has been able to do. He is productive with the ball in the air. He is physical. It is kind of infectious when you watch him. You can see his enthusiasm for the game and how he competes. You have to be spot on with him."

Carolina Coach Ron Rivera said Norman's presence provides the Panthers' defense certain luxuries.

"It allows you to allow your safety to favor opposite of Josh," Rivera said. "Those are the types of things that playing with Josh's skill set helps. We've been the benefactors of his ability to make plays."

Said Cooks: "He's a really good cornerback. He's a smart player. I feel like he studies tape well. He's one of those guys that's really smart and when you've got a smart guy on the field, you're bound to do some good things."

The same can be said of Cooks, a second-year receiver whose production has significantly increased now that he has a better understanding of the offense. Cooks caught 53 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games as a rookie.

His competitiveness and athletic ability will ensure that he'll be up for Sunday's challenge.

"Cooks loves the competition," Brees said. "Not that it was a surprise that Norman matched him the first time we played them, but it was early in the season and there are still a lot of things that had yet to be established.

"So now, you see Norman is their guy that matches receivers, no matter who they're playing. You can see that he loves that opportunity, as well. That's kind of his mind-set, (and) that's Cooks' mind-set. It should be a good matchup."

It'll be a matchup that will begin with a clean slate, Cooks said.

"We're going in there, from the last outing that we had, there are no moral victories," he said. "We didn't get the win then so it's about getting the win now. No matter how good we played them last time, we need to play better."

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