METAIRIE, La. -- The last three weeks have pretty much sealed the fate of the New Orleans Saints for the 2015 season after they crawled back into the playoff race when they won three games in a row.
The last loss pretty much ended the Saints' hopes of somehow making a run and being relevant in the final month of the season, considering they now have to play the undefeated Carolina Panthers (11-0) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It won't be easy, not by any stretch of the imagination for the Saints (4-7). For a team that had so much trouble on defense the first 10 games, the offense has been poor the last 2 1/2 games -- which is troubling to head coach Sean Payton.
The Saints, however, can feel at least a little good about their Week 3 encounter with the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium. With quarterback Drew Brees sitting out with a bruised rotator cuff, the Saints took the Panthers to the wire before dropping a 27-22 decision.
But that game must seem like two years ago to the Saints instead of two months and a few days ago.
In losing their last three games, the Saints have recorded their most lopsided back-to-back results for the decade that Payton has been in charge. They had a 47-14 loss to the Redskins before last week's 18-point setback.
Not even the firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could change the wayward course for Payton's beleaguered team -- which is 4-7 for the first time since he took over in 2006 after being out-scored 71-20 in the last two games.
It's the largest losing margin for the Saints in consecutive games since Jim Haslett's 2001 team lost its final two games of the season 78-10.
But Payton isn't thinking about that, only with trying to find a way to get back on track.
If they can do that and spoil the Panthers' undefeated season, so be it.
"I think it's the desire to win and (the possibility of) a quality win," he said of knocking off Carolina. "When you're playing someone like Carolina the way they're playing right now, the margin for error is slim.
"Yes, you get excited to play a team that's having this type of success. There's a competitive nature in you that clearly, in our case, we haven't won here. We've lost three weeks in a row now."
SERIES HISTORY: 42nd regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 22-19. The Saints will be trying to gain a split of the season series for the third year in a row after the Panthers held on late to win their first matchup, 27-22, on Sept. 27 in Bank of America Stadium. The Saints have won four of the last six games with the Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but Carolina crushed New Orleans, 41-10, last Dec. 7 en route to winning the NFC South title by a half-game over Sean Payton's club.
--The Saints' offense, which didn't fare too well last week against the Houston Texans, might be facing an even bigger challenge from a Carolina Panthers team that ranks second in the league in total defense (312.5) and also is third in points allowed (18.6). The Panthers are tied for second in run defense and are fifth against the pass, which could be an issue for the Saints since they haven't been able to run or throw with any consistency the last couple of games. Given that, they'll have to take their chances with the passing game since it's been a staple of Sean Payton's club for a decade. Despite their recent woes, the Saints still rank third in passing offense and will take their shots. But running back Mark Ingram has still had his moments and is capable of some big gains, which could be a big help.
Defensively, the Saints played much better than they have for most of this season in a loss to the Houston Texans. They held a team under 400 yards for only the fourth time in 11 games and allowed just 10 second-half points after giving up a pair of touchdowns on the Texans' first two possessions. Carolina presents a different problem even though they rank 17th in total offense; the Panthers run the ball with power and efficiency and rank fourth in the league with 138.9 yards per game. But it's the legs of quarterback Cam Newton that the Saints, who rank 30th in giving up 134.5 yards per game, have to be worried about. If he gets off to a good start with their read-option attack, it could be a long day. On the other hand, at least slowing him down would be a good start because the Panthers rank only 29th in passing -- another of the Saints' weaknessses.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Saints front seven vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton.
The Saints know the damage Newton can do with his arm and legs, especially the latter. Newton has averaged 4.4 yards a carry in rushing for 427 yards and has seven touchdowns, which will have to be the focus of the Saints' defensive line and linebackers. Yet, Newton hurt the Saints more with his arm in their first meeting this season with 315 yards and a pair of touchdowns, so they'll have to be ready for the dual threat he presents.
--Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Panthers secondary.
Brees has had a tough two weeks against the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, throwing for just 437 yards and two TDs with three interceptions, and it could be just as tough against the back end of the Panthers' defense. Free safety Kurt Coleman has five interceptions and cornerback Josh Norman has four to help the Panthers rank fifth against the pass. Their tight coverage could be a tough matchup for Brees, who has thrown at least one pick in his last five games and seven total in that span.