Twice this season, the New Orleans Saints have played Carolina with the Panthers minus tight end Greg Olsen.
That's not likely to be the case Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, when New Orleans (11-5) takes on Carolina (11-5) in their NFC Wild Card playoff game.
Olsen (17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in seven games) has battled injuries all season and was sidelined during the Saints' 34-13 and 31-21 victories, respectively, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., and in the Superdome. But the two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, who had three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons before this year, is available this time.
"You're talking about one of the better tight ends in the game, so not having him is significant and having him is huge," Saints Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday morning, in a teleconference with local media. "He's smart, he's tough, he blocks for the run, he enjoys competing and quite honestly, he does so many little things well in regards to zone or man that third down or red zone – pick a situation – it's significant."
CHANGE THE LOOK: The Saints won the two regular-season games against Carolina by a combined score of 65-34. And while much of what was successful on offense possibly can be successful again, Payton said it can't look the same as before.
"I know that we know as a staff, as we're watching film – and particularly, watching film of ourselves – I know every bit of film and every hour we spend watching film, (Carolina linebacker) Luke Kuechly is watching the same film as diligently," he said.
"And so, you have to have plays that begin looking like something you've done, and that are something different. In other words, if you line up in a similar formation two or three times, even in the game, he's that in tune and is such a good communicator to (linebackers Thomas) Davis and to Shaq (Thompson). He'll yawn at some of your formations if you don't create some disguise and backfield depth. Every iota of your formation has to be looked at clearly so that he's not leaning one direction or another."
HUMBLE PIE: Saints running back Alvin Kamara's 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay was the longest play in franchise history. And it earned him no slack from Payton, who jabbed the electrifying rookie afterward.
"Now, mind you, that official on the sideline is running just as fast as him," Payton joked. "And I made sure he heard that from me: 'You know, just when you were feeling pretty good about that kick return, there's a side judge there that looked like he was gaining on you.' "