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John DeShazier: Saints know the importance of Sunday's game

New Orleans, Carolina sit atop NFC South at 9-3

First, couch the concern that the New Orleans Saints, who were forced to spend an extra night in Seattle due to flight problems after their 34-7 loss Monday, might have been deprived of valuable preparation time for their upcoming Sunday night game against Carolina at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"From a schedule standpoint, we had planned ahead of time kind of treating (Wednesday) much like a Tuesday (the league-wide non-practice day), where they're in lifting, watching tape," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "Then, (Thursday) will be our Wednesday.

"That's something we had planned regardless of whether we flew back after the game or flew back the next morning. It's just something we've done whenever we've had a West Coast trip and then come back and played a Sunday game.

"From a schedule standpoint, we should be fine. I think it's important to have that time from your last game to when you first start practicing and we've done this before."

The Saints might add a little more to the workloads on Friday and Saturday, but preparation won't suffer.

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Second, know that whatever time spent reflecting on what ifs has passed. New Orleans fully is aware of the ramifications of its fifth nationally televised game of the season, including its third straight game in prime time and its fourth in 29 days.

New Orleans, which is undefeated (6-0) this season in the Superdome, and the Panthers sit atop the NFC South Division standings with identical 9-3 records, tied for the second-best record in the conference, set to square off twice in three weeks, beginning Sunday.

"It's an important game, and I think both teams will be anxious and understand the significance of the game," Payton said. "Then throw on top of it, it's Sunday night. It'll be a real good buildup to it and for us, it'll come very quickly."

"It's the Carolina Panthers, they're a hot team, it's in the division and we're pretty much in a dead heat as far as trying to win the division," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It's a big game. You don't have to really add much sugar to this one to know the importance of it."

Though the game already figured to be a significant draw – Carolina has won eight straight games and the Saints had won three straight before their loss – the NFL deemed it worthy of a marquee time slot weeks ago.

The league, with its ability to move to Sunday night late-season, high-profile games that were scheduled to be played Sunday afternoon, adjusted the schedule so that Carolina and New Orleans would have the stage to themselves.

Not that any of that erased the sting from Monday night for the Saints. Payton and his staff didn't gloss over the result or the performance that led to it.

"We've got a lot of things we've got to improve on," he said. "We did a lot of things that kept us from winning, in a lot of areas. It wasn't just one area.

"Offensively, we struggled to find any rhythm, any time of possession. Defensively, when we needed to get off the field, we couldn't. They made the plays they needed to."

And solace wasn't taken from the fact that the Seahawks scored one touchdown in the second half.

"We were down by 20 points," Jenkins said of the 27-7 halftime deficit. "Once they scored on the second drive of the (second) half, I think their team changed their mentality and they became focusing on running the ball, kind of running the clock."

But neither that, nor the delayed return, affected preparation or tamped down the fact that Sunday's game also carries huge significance.

Carolina Coach Ron Rivera, whose team swept the season series last year, said his team, too, understands the scenario.

"I think they get it," Rivera said. "I think our players understand what we're going in to. It is their home, so we'll see how it goes."

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