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New Orleans Saints vs Carolina Panthers: game preview

Kickoff is set for 7:25 p.m. CT

The New Orleans Saints will close out the opening half of the 2014 season and their first round of NFC South division play in Charlotte, N.C. where they will battle the Carolina Panthers in a prime time nationally televised matchup on Thursday night. Kickoff from Bank of America Stadium is set for 7:25 p.m. (CT) in what will be the first of two matchups between these two teams in 2014. With the 3-4 Saints trailing the 3-4-1 Panthers by percentage points for the division lead, first place in the NFC South will be on the line on Thursday night.

Faced with the prospect of dropping to 2-5 for the first time since 2005, New Orleans saved their best performance of the season to date with a 44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. In the process, the Saints not only improved their record to 3-4, but combined with a 13-9 Panthers loss to Seattle, they moved to within percentage points of the first place Panthers.

Drew Brees continued to provide the consistency and leadership at the quarterback position he has since 2006 as he completed 27-of-32 passes for 311 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 138.34 passer rating. While Brees completed passes to nine different Saints, WR Brandin Cooks came up with the most prolific performance of his career, as he recorded six receptions for 94 yards with a 50-yard touchdown and also added a four-year touchdown run. Giving Brees a plethora of opportunities to pin point his passes was the offensive line, which allowed just two sacks. On the season, they have  allowed only eight takedowns, tied for the second-lowest total in the league.

RB Mark Ingram also enjoyed the signature performance of his four-year career as his 172 rushing yards are tied for seventh-most in club annals.

Defensively, the Saints' pressure on the Packers' offense mounted when it mattered most. After the Saints failed to convert on a fourth-and-two situation at the start of the third quarter and gave the ball back to Green Bay who advanced to the New Orleans five-yard line, the defense went to work forcing three second half turnovers, starting with an interception by ILB David Hawthorne on that drive. In between two picks, Hawthorne and DE Tyrunn Walker stopped Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy on a fourth-and-one rush in New Orleans territory to give the Saints the ball back.

Special teams also contributed significantly to the cause. While P Thomas Morstead didn't punt, all eight of his kickoffs sailed into the end zone for touchbacks to minimize Green Bay's field position. K Shayne Graham drilled three-of-three field goals in the first half to improve his numbers to 13-of-14 for the season.

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