Often, when the New Orleans Saints play a division opponent for the second time in the season, Coach Sean Payton will remark how much the teams have changed since the first meeting, even if the games are within a month apart.
Entering Sunday's rematch at the Caesars Superdome between the Saints (7-8) and Panthers (5-10), with New Orleans tightly clinging to playoff hopes, both teams have experienced drastic changes since the Sept. 19 encounter, a 26-7 Panthers victory in Charlotte, N.C.
Notably for the Saints, they won't have the quarterback (Jameis Winston), free safety Marcus Williams, left guard (Andrus Peat) or right tackle (Ryan Ramczyk) who started that game. For the Panthers, among the absent will be running back Christian McCaffrey, defensive end Brian Burns and linebackers Haason Reddick and Shaq Thompson. Also, since that first game, Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady was fired and replaced in that role by senior offensive assistant Jeff Nixon.
While the Saints will be starting a different quarterback (Taysom Hill) on Sunday, the Panthers won't. But Carolina's Sam Darnold this season has been injured and benched before returning to the starting lineup, and is expected to share at least some snaps with Cam Newton.
"When Cam's (Newton) in there what they're doing and when Sam's (Darnold) in there, you're kind of preparing for both and understanding what they like to do with both," Payton said. "They've had a change at offensive coordinator, a new play-caller, a lot of different things.
"You really need to rely on the tape and study it and kind of go by what you're seeing in the games leading up to your game. There will be some wrinkles I'm sure. The two things are both those quarterbacks are playing, they have uniquely different skill sets and they both can be challenging."
Defensive back P.J. Williams, who likely will replace Marcus Williams at free safety after standing in at strong safety for Malcolm Jenkins on Monday night, said it's understandable that the Panthers would make a change at starting quarterback, from Newton back to Darnold.
"I feel like they haven't been winning so you can understand the quarterback change," P.J. Williams said. "And also he beat us last time so they might think, oh, he'd have a better chance to beat us.
"But also their offense, I feel like they've been doing a lot of quarterback runs (with Newton). And that changed the game a whole lot because you've got everybody accounted for, and then pulling guards, and the free safety has got to get involved in the run game pretty much to get extra numbers in the run game.
"But with Sam I feel like he throws the ball down the field a lot. It's more traditional with him, but they've definitely got a pretty good offense for sure."
New Orleans' offense has undergone an even more drastic shifting than Carolina's. Only right guard Cesar Ruiz remains in the lineup from the projected starting offensive line, though left tackle Terron Armstead is listed as questionable for the game.
"It's kind of what's been going on this season, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of people in and out," running back Alvin Kamara said. "I was hurt for a little bit, our tackles – our offensive line is depleted. Quarterback gone.
"But it is what it is, nobody feels sorry for us. Football doesn't stop for nobody, time doesn't stop for nobody. We just keep moving and keep trying to counter some of these punches. It's definitely a different team but whoever steps in, they've got the same goal in mind. There's no drop off, we expect to go in and do what we've got to do to get a victory."