METAIRIE, La. -- Coming off a bye week after avoiding a 0-4 start with a late comeback in an Oct. 2 victory over the San Diego Chargers, the New Orleans Saints are going to find out in a hurry if they're going to be a factor in the final 12 games of the season.
The Saints (1-3) will have a big test to see if they can build on their stirring 35-34 triumph over the Chargers when they host the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers (1-4) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
While Carolina already has three more losses than it did all last season and is coming in with three consecutive setbacks, the Saints certainly will be giving them their proper respect.
That's because the Saints know they can't afford to feel overly comfortable at this point, especially not after an improbable win the Chargers helped deliver with three turnovers in the final seven minutes.
"I don't think our team's going to take any team lightly," Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday when asked about the Panthers' misfortune so far this season. "In other words, we're sitting here at 1-3. I think it's a silly question. ... I think our team's been in this locker room, players who have been here know it's a division game.
"We're coming off a win in San Diego and we know the team we're playing is a championship-level team that has lost some tough, close games. We're going to have to be at our best. I think our players know that."
One problem for the Saints coaches this week was they didn't know if they were going to see Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the NFL's reigning MVP, after he missed Monday night's 17-14 loss to the Bucs.
But the Saints are fully expecting to see Newton return from a concussion to try to get his team back on track -- which is not a comforting thought.
"I don't think it (Newton's availability) presents a challenge, honestly," Payton said during a conference call. "In our case, we're preparing for him. We feel he's going to play, and, starting with Monday's practice even, I think that's clearly the only way to approach it.
"Yet, we understand the strengths and weaknesses of Derek (Anderson) and the other players who may and may not play on their team. But in this case, our plan is to see him and we're planning accordingly."
For their part, Saints players know they have to show some significant progress and improvement from their first win of the season to make it count.
"It's way better to be 1-3 than 0-4," two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "That being said, we've got to be able to put together one full game."
In that game, the Saints struggled on defense with two coverage busts resulting in two easy touchdown passes that had them in a 24-14 hole at halftime.
In the second half, the Saints uncharacteristically faltered on offense until they capitalized two late turnovers by the Chargers into touchdowns.
Now, they have to see if they can maintain the momentum and make it a turning point in their season.
"Only time will tell," fullback John Kuhn said when asked if it could indeed turn their season around completely. "It's too early to make judgments."
SERIES HISTORY: 43rd regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 23-19. The Panthers have held the upper hand in the series since the Saints swept games matchups in 2010 and '11. Carolina took both games in 2012 and again in 2015 and the teams split in the two seasons in between, giving the Panthers six wins in the last eight meetings -- winning three times in their last four visits to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Even though the Panthers went 15-1 in the regular season a year ago, the Saints kept both games close in losing 27-22 in Charlotte on Sept. 27 and 41-38 in the rematch on Dec. 6 in the Superdome.
--In addition to having some time away from the field for their bye week, the Saints got some good news when they returned to work on Monday.
Coach Sean Payton said the Saints could have multiple players back from injuries before the midway point of the season, a list topped by cornerback Delvin Breaux and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
Both players are rehabbing from surgery on fractured fibulas.
Rankins, the Saints' top draft pick this spring, was hurt in training camp in mid-August and Breaux, the team's top cover cornerback, went down in the third quarter of the season opener against the Oakland Raiders.
"I think we're going to have those guys back before we get to the midpoint of the season," Payton said during the Saints coaches show on WWL Radio, the team's flagship station. "I think that's going to be before we finish this next quarter (of the season)."
Rankins was put on injured reserve on Sept. 5, which means he can return after six weeks and can play in a game two weeks after that. Breaux, who underwent surgery on Sept. 12, can return as soon as he's cleared because he remained on the active roster.
--The Saints, who have been crushed by injuries in the secondary this season, took another big hit in practice Monday when reserve safety Erik Harris sustained a torn ACL and he had season-ending surgery Tuesday.
Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network first reported that Harris, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who had been solid on all special teams, was hurt in the team's first practice back following its bye.
Breaux was lost for an indefinite period in the season opener when he fractured his fibula and a week later, the Saints lost their other starting cornerback, P.J. Williams, to a severe concussion that sidelined him for the season.
Cornerback Damian Swann, who was expected to be the nickel back this season, went down in the exhibition season with an undisclosed ailment and was put on injured reserve as well.
On top of that, strong safety Kenny Vaccaro missed a Week 3 game with the Atlanta Falcons after injuring his ankle in the previous game.
--Through four games, the Saints continue to look for ways to get pressure on the quarterback and brought in several free agents for tryouts on Tuesday to seen if they can help off the edge.
ESPN reported that the Saints had a large group of defensive ends and linebackers in for workouts, with former Indianapolis Colts first-round draft pick Bjoern Werner topping the list.
Also in the group of 10 players the Saints reportedly tried out were Greg Townsend, Danny Lansanah, Derek Akunne, Wes Horton, John Lotulelei, Andy Mulumba, Shaquille Riddick, Royce LaFrance and Dezman Moses.
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley has three of the Saints' seven sacks so far to lead the team, while defensive end Cameron Jordan has 2.5. Linebacker Michael Mauti and defensive end Paul Kruger have one each.
--Coach Sean Payton became the Saints all-time leader in victories when they beat the San Diego Chargers 35-34 on Oct. 2.
Including a 6-4 mark in the postseason, Payton is 94-64 in his 10th season with the Saints. Jim Mora previously held the club mark for victories in posting a 93-78 record -- including playoffs -- from 1986-96.
NOTES: LT Terron Armstead, who has missed two games because of a knee injury, didn't work Wednesday and his status for Sunday's game with Carolina is unknown. ... RDE Paul Kruger, who left the team's last game with a back injury, did not practice Wednesday and his availability for Sunday's game is unknown. ... WLB Dannell Ellerbe, who hasn't played in the regular season, did not participate in Wednesday's practice and his return is unknown. ... LCB Delvin Breaux continues to rehab from surgery for a fractured fibula on Sept. 12 and could return to the lineup in late October. ... S Erik Harris sustained a torn ACL in Monday's practice and had surgery on Tuesday. ... MLB James Laurinaitis, who has a quadriceps injury that forced him to miss the last game, was limited Wednesday and his status for Sunday is not known. ... G/C Senio Kelemete, who was sidelined for the last game because of a hamstring injury, was limited Wednesday and his availability for this week is unknown. ... TE Josh Hill, who has missed three games after spraining an ankle in the season opener, was limited in practice Wednesday and may return soon. ... OL Khalif Barnes was signed during the bye week to add some veteran depth at the guard and tackle positions. ... CB Brian Dixon, who was waived during the bye week, was signed to the practice squad.