The Saints celebrate their division championship following Week 17 against the Buccaneers
The New Orleans Saints aren't dismissive of their regular-season sweep of Carolina, victories that allowed New Orleans (11-5) to own the tiebreaker and win the NFC South Division title over the Panthers (11-5).
They're just firm in the belief that entering their wild-card playoff game matchup against their division rivals on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, those two wins today – 34-13 in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 24 and 31-21 in the Superdome on Dec. 3 – aren't worth much more than the air required to cite them.
"We start this time of the year and everyone is starting from scratch," Coach Sean Payton said Monday during a conference call with media. "The only thing that you pay attention to, obviously, is (it's) a division opponent, the personnel, things that you didn't do well in the earlier two games, maybe what you did well. But from a playoff standpoint, you understand that now you're in a single-elimination tournament."
"They matter, but they don't," defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins explained. "Obviously, it gives you some confidence that you've already beaten this team twice. It gives you confidence in the fact that you kind of know what they're going to do, you kind of know them, so to speak, as an offense. But at the same time it's a different season. If we lose, it's over. If we win, we keep on going on. So at the same it matters, but it doesn't. We've just got to try to win this game."
It doesn't figure to be easy.
The fact that Carolina is a playoff opponent virtually assures a tussle. The fact that it's a division rival that the Saints will be attempting to beat for the third time this season spikes the degree of difficulty.
"I have heard that, and familiarity is definitely an element of this game," center Max Unger said. "It's good and it's bad, and all that. It's a division opponent that we're familiar with, so that adds an element to it."
The element that unlikely is to be added, is surprise. Sunday afternoon's kickoff between the teams will be their second meeting in less than five weeks. And though four games were wedged between, each team still has a good idea of what the other considers its strengths.
Plus, each is eager to rebound from a loss in the regular-season finale. The Saints dropped a 31-24 decision to Tampa Bay.
"I'm real excited," defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. "I know we're all real excited, too. We're also excited to get this bad taste out of our mouth from the last game. I think we got a fire lit underneath us to come out and play the way we know we're capable of playing.
"Our details weren't exactly on point like they need to be that last game. I think we're taking that as a lesson, that we've really got to be on point with everything that we do and have our full energy devoted to everything that we do."
That doesn't appear to be a problem, even for the playoff rookies. That list includes sixth-year linebacker Craig Robertson, who spent his first four seasons with Cleveland.
Robertson said he didn't get any extra chills at the thought of participating in the playoffs for the first time.
"I thought it would be, but now it's just a more important game," he said. "That's the way I'm approaching it, that's the way it feels. When I woke up this morning, my wife was excited. She was like, 'Hey, it's your first playoff week.' And I'm like, this is just another work week.
"That's what it feels like and that's the way I'm going to treat it. Definitely going to put more into the week, more into practice, just try and do all the little things because it's win or go home. So just trying to all the little things we can and get my teammates involved in everything."
One of the big things, though, will be to dismiss the regular-season results against Carolina.
"Everybody is 0-0," Robertson said. "It's playoffs, what we did in the past is the past, we're only worried about the present now. We can't really focus on what we did before. We can just look at the good things that we did and try to recreate those and make sure that we're on the right side of this at the end of the game."