2014 DRAFT GUIDE
Disappointed Panthers, Saints seek strong finish

By BY BRETT MARTEL - AP Sports Writer
    2012-12-28 20:24

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are about to close the book on a season that may forever be defined by the word ``bounty.'' They want to do it by avoiding the ``losing team'' label, even if the playoffs are out of reach.

The Panthers had no such scandal overshadowing their season, only the disappointment of failing to reach expectations that may have been unfairly high after Cam Newton's stellar rookie campaign. Still, Carolina has won three straight and four out of five, offering hope that one productive offseason may be all the Panthers and their talented, dual-threat quarterback need to become contenders again.

So when the Saints (7-8) and Panthers (6-9) meet Sunday, what might otherwise look like an anticlimactic season finale between two teams going nowhere will mean much more to the players and coaches involved.

``You want to go out and play your absolute best and really feel good about our team, the way we were able to finish and the future despite not meeting some of the goals that we had for this season,'' said Brees, whose season has been about as wildly inconsistent as his team's. ``We want to finish strong, and we want to really have something we can build on moving forward. Over the last two weeks we've done that, but we have to complete that trifecta by doing it again this week. This is the most important game of the season.''

Brees, who held out until shortly before training camp for a five-year, $100 million extension, has been plagued by a league-high 18 interceptions, while at the same time remaining among the most productive quarterbacks in NFL history.

With one more touchdown pass, Brees will become the first quarterback to throw 40 scoring passes in consecutive seasons. With 4,781 yards passing, Brees is the first player in NFL history with three straight 4,500-yard seasons, and he needs 219 yards - well below his average - to be the first in NFL history with three 5,000-yard seasons.

``Well, let's hope we hit those. Let's hope we win the game. And then we'll reflect once the season is over,'' Brees said. ``In the end, as a quarterback, it's did you win or did you lose, did you go to the playoffs or did you not, did you have a chance at the championship or not? That's what drives you.''

For the Saints, the game is expected to be the last under assistant head coach Joe Vitt. He has served in an interim role while Sean Payton has served his season-long suspension in connection with the NFL's investigation into the Saints' cash-for-hits performance pool.

It might even be the last game Vitt coaches in any capacity. While appearing as a witness earlier this month on behalf of players appealing their bounty suspensions, the 58-year-old Vitt said he ``could've retired last August.''

``I'll make a decision after the season what I'm going to do with my career,'' Vitt said, according to transcripts of the closed hearing obtained by The Associated Press.

The Saints are expecting Payton to return as head coach when his suspension ends following the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 - perhaps earlier if Commissioner Roger Goodell permits it. Payton agreed in principle to a multiyear contract extension on Friday, according to two people familiar with the deal. The people spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because the deal had not been signed and exact terms were still being worked out.

Meanwhile, Carolina coach Ron Rivera's future is unclear as he concludes a second straight losing season. A loss would doom him to consecutive 6-10 finishes, but Rivera said he believes the team is headed in the right direction.

``This week we're playing the Saints and then after that we'll just go forward and see what happens,'' Rivera said, referring to the talk about his job security. ``It's crazy because you kind of wonder where it all came from and it never came from (Panthers owner Jerry Richardson) and that's the thing. I'm on the hot seat; at no point was I ever told that.''

Certainly, his players haven't given up on him as they look to close out the season.

``Everybody feels like we're playing well, but it's kind of a bittersweet moment, because we feel like we should have been playing like this all year long,'' Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell said. ``We know we have a good coach here. Hopefully he'll come back. We all want him back.''

One of Carolina's few early-season wins came in Week 2 over a Saints squad en route to an 0-4 start. The Saints' defense was playing much worse back then, however. New Orleans' defense started so poorly, in fact, that despite substantial improvement it remains on pace to give up more yards than any in NFL history.

The Saints have yielded 6,512 yards, 281 yards short of the record 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, a team on which Vitt served as a third-year assistant.

Vitt concedes the numbers are not flattering, but also said they don't tell the story of how the unit responded to a poor start under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

``You talk to any defensive member of the team and they're proud to be a part of that unit. The coaching staff certainly is,'' Vitt said. ``There has been improvement, there has been (a) shutout. Instead of being the negative part, the all-time leader, whatever that means, we have a chance to be 8-8 and be an improved defense. That's more important - not where we were, but how we finished.''

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Fantasy Football Player Notes RSS FeedPLAYER NOTES

Pierre ThomasOct 30 07:22p

New Orleans Saints RBs Khiry Robinson (forearm) and Pierre Thomas (shoulder) are both inactive in Week 9 against the Carolina Panthers Thursday, Oct. 30.

David HawthorneOct 30 07:12p

The New Orleans Saints have declared LB Austin Johnson, LB David Hawthorne, C Jonathan Goodwin, RB Khiry Robinson, WR Nick Toon, RB Pierre Thomas, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste inactive for Week 9.

Amini SilatoluOct 30 07:12p

The Carolina Panthers have declared OG Amini Silatolu, CB Bene Benwikere, OT Byron Bell, RB Fozzy Whittaker, WR Philly Brown, FS Thomas DeCoud, OG Trai Turner inactive for Week 9.

Brandon BrownerOct 30 04:32p

New England Patriots DT Alan Branch (non-injury related) and DE Chandler Jones (hip) did not practice Thursday, Oct. 30. S Nate Ebner (finger), DL Dominique Easley (knee), OL Cameron [ More ]

Brandon ThompsonOct 30 04:22p

Cincinnati Bengals CB Darqueze Dennard (hamstring), LB Rey Maualuga (hamstring) and OG Kevin Zeitler (calf) did not practice Thursday, Oct. 30. DT Domata Peko (toe) and OT Andre Smith [ More ]

Dwight FreeneyOct 30 04:22p

San Diego Chargers LB Manti Te'o (foot), CB Jason Verrett (shoulder) and S Jahleel Addae (concussion) did not practice Thursday, Oct. 30. LB Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring) was limited. CB [ More ]

Donald BrownOct 30 04:12p

San Diego Chargers RB Donald Brown (concussion) practiced fully Thursday, Oct. 30.

Terrell SuggsOct 30 04:02p

Baltimore Ravens WR Michael Campanaro (thigh), CB Jimmy Smith (foot) and LB Terrell Suggs (neck) all did not participate in practice Thursday, Oct. 30. OG Marshal Yanda (knee) [ More ]

Brett KeiselOct 30 03:52p

Pittsburgh Steelers DE Brett Keisel (non-injury), SS Troy Polamalu (non-injury) and SS Ross Ventrone (hamstring) did not participate in practice Thursday, Oct. 30. CB Ike Taylor (forearm) and FS [ More ]

Bruce CarterOct 30 03:22p

Dallas Cowboys LB Bruce Carter (finger) suffered a broken ring finger during practice Thursday, Oct. 30, but expects to play in Week 9. He will wear a splint on his finger for protection.

Cullen JenkinsOct 30 03:12p

New York Giants DT Cullen Jenkins (calf) did not participate in practice Thursday, Oct. 30. CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (back, hamstring) and P Steve Weatherford (ankle) were both limited in practice.

Brandon BoykinOct 30 03:12p

Philadelphia Eagles FS Nate Allen (hamstring) did not participate in practice Thursday, Oct. 30. TE Brent Celek (back) and WR Brad Smith (groin) were both limited in practice. CB [ More ]

D'Qwell JacksonOct 30 03:12p

Indianapolis Colts LB D'Qwell Jackson (toe), DT Arthur Jones (ankle), LB Erik Walden (quadriceps) and LB Josh McNary (ankle) did not participate in practice Thursday, Oct. 30. CB Vontae [ More ]

Rashad JenningsOct 30 02:42p

New York Giants RB Rashad Jennings (knee) said he is on track in terms of his rehab, but there is no timetable for his return. Jennings said he has [ More ]

Jordan CameronOct 30 02:32p

Cleveland Browns TE Jordan Cameron (concussion) did not participate in practice Thursday, Oct. 30.

Anthony CollinsOct 30 02:32p

Tampa Bay Buccaneers OT Oniel Cousins is working at left tackle with the first-team offense during practice Thursday, Oct. 30, because OT Anthony Collins (foot) is sitting out practice.

Doug MartinOct 30 02:22p

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Doug Martin (ankle) is not participating in practice Thursday, Oct. 30.

Jason VerrettOct 30 01:52p

San Diego Chargers CB Jason Verrett (shoulder) is expected to miss two to three weeks with a torn labrum, according to two sources.

DeAngelo WilliamsOct 30 01:52p

Carolina Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (ankle) will start the team's Week 9 game against the New Orleans Saints Thursday, Oct. 30, according to head coach Ron Rivera.

R. Griffin IIIOct 30 01:42p

Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III (ankle) received most of the work with the first-team offense during practice Thursday, Oct. 30, and will start in Week 9 if he [ More ]

Jaylen WatkinsOct 30 01:32p

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Giovani BernardOct 30 01:22p

Cincinnati Bengals RB Giovani Bernard (hip, shoulder) did not participate in practice Thursday, Oct. 30.

Tony RomoOct 30 01:02p

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Trent RichardsonOct 30 12:42p

Indianapolis Colts RB Trent Richardson (hamstring) is participating in practice Thursday, Oct. 30.

Reggie WayneOct 30 12:42p

Indianapolis Colts WR Reggie Wayne (elbow) is not participating in practice Thursday, Oct. 30.

Tony RomoOct 30 12:22p

Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo's (back) status is making head coach Jason Garrett feel optimistic about his availability for Week 9.

Dallas ThomasOct 30 11:43a

Miami Dolphins OG Dallas Thomas would be the most likely candidate to start at left guard if OG Daryn Colledge (illness) is not able to play in Week 9.

Rashad JenningsOct 30 11:12a

New York Giants RB Rashad Jennings (knee) has been ruled out for Week 9.

Phil BatesOct 30 10:52a

The Cleveland Browns signed free-agent WR Phil Bates (Seahawks) to the practice squad and released CB Marcus Cromartie Thursday, Oct. 30.

Charles SimsOct 30 10:13a

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Charles Sims could have 10 or more touches in Week 9, in the opinion of beat writer Greg Auman.

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