Carolina (6-7) has lost five straight and no longer controls its own destiny in the NFC playoff race, but a path exists to the postseason. The Panthers also play New Orleans in Week 17 with a home game versus the struggling Atlanta Falcons in between.
"We had high expectations for the season and unfortunately it hasn't been going our way," Carolina safety Mike Adams said. "The only people we can blame is ourselves. We were put in position to make plays and we just haven't been making them."
It appeared before the season began that these games would decide the NFC South but New Orleans (11-2) has already clinched the division and is battling the Los Angeles Rams (11-2) for conference supremacy.
"Even though we've clinched the South these next three games are very important for us as far as where we want to be heading into the playoffs," Saints linebacker A.J. Klein said.
The Panthers are 2-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season.
"It's extremely frustrating to come up short each and every week with similar settings and not be able to push through," Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said. "In this league, that's what it always comes down to -- finding ways to keep the game close. We just haven't found a way to win."
The Panthers, though, figure there's still time to make this right.
"We feel like we are going to win every game," Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said. "It is not for a lack of confidence. It is just a lack of execution."
New Orleans certainly knows its way to the winner's circle with losses only to Tampa Bay in Week 1 and at Dallas on Nov. 29 prior to its 28-14 victory over the Buccaneers last week. The Saints, though, have flipped the script with a suddenly tight defense and an offense that averaged 35.4 points in their first 11 games before scoring a total of 38 in their past two.
"We had a rough stretch there," New Orleans running back Mark Ingram II said. "Football is not a perfect game. Everything is not going to be perfect. Everything's not going to be scripted exactly how you want it to be.
"So, our defense and our special teams have been able to keep us in games and give us a chance to win versus Dallas. And it gave us a chance to be able to come back and go on our run in the second half right there to build a comeback and win the [Tampa Bay] game on the road."
The Saints' defense, which hasn't allowed more than 17 points in the last five games, will be focused on Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey. The multi-dimensional running back has 1,627 yards from scrimmage this season and needs 10 to break the franchise record set by DeAngelo Williams in 2008. Williams rushed for 1,515 yards that season while McCaffrey's totals are more balanced with 926 yards on the ground and 701 receiving.
McCaffrey's 12 touchdowns in the past seven games are the most by any player during that span.
The Saints' defense could key even more on McCaffrey with Newton battling a sore shoulder. However, the ailment didn't stop him from joining Peyton Manning last week as the only players in NFL history to pass for more than 3,000 yards in each of his first eight seasons.
New Orleans has led the NFL in run defense for most of the season and in recent weeks its pass rush has improved significantly. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan has 12 sacks, one short of the career high he set last season, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has eight sacks -- by far the most in his three-year career.
Saints linebacker Demario Davis, who joined the team as a free agent in the offseason and has become the leading tackler, said Jordan has "exceeded my expectations."
"I knew he was one of the top pass rushers in the league," Davis said, "but to see firsthand the impact he has on games, it's phenomenal."
Davis has been similarly impressed by Rankins, a former No. 1 draft choice.
"He's as good as they come," Davis said. "Great in the run game, unblockable in the pass game. If they try to leave him one-on-one, he's going to get to the quarterback. He's a beast. All those guys up front are playing remarkable right now. I think our defensive line is what's anchoring our defense right now."
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (31 touchdowns, four interceptions) is having an MVP-type season with lots of weapons, but the game could come down to who runs the ball better. Ingram goes against the No. 7 rush defense while Alvin Kamara is among the best receiving running backs in the game but can also do damage on the ground.
Chandler Catanzaro is expected to perform the kicking duties again for Carolina with Graham Gano battling a knee injury. He joined the team prior to last week's game at Cleveland after kicking earlier in the season for Tampa Bay and was 2-for-2 on field goals and 2-for-2 on extra points in the 26-20 loss to the Browns.
Saints left tackle Terron Armstead, who has missed the last five games with a pectoral injury, practiced on a limited basis Thursday, as he did last week.
The Panthers lead the all-time series by a 24-22 margin after New Orleans won all three meetings last season, including 31-26 in an NFC wild-card game.