CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mike Shula recalled a childhood memory about his legendary father when asked if he had been involved in beating a team three times in one NFL season.
"I almost embarrassed myself and said, 'Well, I was a kid with my dad when they beat the Jets three times,'" the son of former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula said of the 1982 Dolphins team that beat the Jets twice in the regular season and again in the playoffs en route to the Super Bowl.
The Vikings won 42-14 and 33-27 during the season, but in the wild-card playoff game the Bears won 35-18.
It’s almost identical to the situation Shula and the Panthers (11-5) face Sunday in New Orleans when they attempt to beat a Saints (11-5) team that defeated them 34-13 and 31-21 during the season.
"It was hard," Shula recalled of avoiding the sweep when he was Chicago’s tight ends coach.
The cliché in these situations is it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. But history shows it happens more times than not.
Thirteen out of 20 times since the league merger in 1970 the team that won two regular-season games went on to win the playoff game.
Shula was just fortunate to be on a team that bucked the trend. He can’t tell you why. He can’t say which team should have the edge in the third game this time, or even what side of the ball might have an advantage, although "on paper you’d say defense."
"They know us just as well as we know them," Shula said.
Shula compared it to a best-of-seven series in basketball in which teams make tweaks from game to game.
“It’s that kind of mentality," he said, referring to how the Panthers are approaching this rematch.
The biggest challenge for the Saints might be wondering whether they will see the Carolina team that has been inconsistent and turnover-plagued against them or the one that played efficiently in wins against New England and Minnesota.
"There are some games where they have ugly losses, then they come back and beat up some really good teams," New Orleans defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “We have to take those losses with a grain of salt and count on them coming in full strength for this game.
“We've already beat them twice, and we know they're upset about that, but we can't let that deviate what our plans are for this game."
The Saints come in confident that they’ve beaten the Panthers twice, but they know that can’t turn into overconfidence.
“Obviously, it gives you some confidence that you’ve already beaten this team twice," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “But at the same time it’s a different season. If we lose, it’s over. If we win, we keep going on."
Here were the biggest keys to New Orleans’ victories -- and the four areas where Carolina will have to improve most in Round 3:
Saints ran wild: The Panthers had the third-best rushing defense in the NFL this year, allowing 88.1 yards per game. But they gave up their two biggest rushing totals by far against New Orleans -- 149 yards in Week 3 and 148 in Week 13.
The Panthers got burned by both members of New Orleans' dynamic duo. Rookie Alvin Kamara had a 25-yard touchdown run in the first meeting and a 20-yard TD run in the rematch. Veteran Mark Ingram broke loose for a 72-yard run in Week 13.
Carolina is hardly the only victim, though. The Saints ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (129.4) and first in the NFL in yards per carry (4.7), while Kamara and Ingram became the first RB duo in NFL history to each surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
“Their running game right now is dynamic. That is the most important thing we have to stop first,” said Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
The Panthers certainly have the horses to stop the New Orleans running game, with a loaded front seven led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.
“They played the run real well [Sunday] from watching the game tape,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They do a real great job of rushing the quarterback, so hopefully we will be able to have that balance.”
Panthers couldn't get to Brees: Part of the Panthers' problem was they couldn’t make the Saints one-dimensional. Much of what the Panthers do defensively is predicated on pressuring the quarterback. They ranked third in the league with 50 sacks during the regular season.
But they got to Saints quarterback Drew Brees only three times in two games -- and they forced zero interceptions while he completed 75 percent of his passes.
“He’s one of those guys that takes two steps [and gets rid of the ball],” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison said. “He don’t like to get hit, so he’s going to release the ball very fast. So we’ve got to take more direct paths to get to him.”
Brees’ quick release forces somewhat of a change in scheme for Wilks. The emphasis becomes more on having defenders make quick tackles to limit the yards after catch.
Saints contained Newton: On the flip side, the Saints defense did a much better job of rattling quarterback Cam Newton, who completed 34 of 53 passes (64 percent) for a total of 350 yards in the two meetings.
Newton was much less effective in the first meeting. He was intercepted three times and sacked four times, while throwing no touchdown passes.
Newton also wasn’t running the ball much in the first game -- three carries for 16 yards and a TD -- when he still was rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery.
In the second meeting, Newton threw two touchdowns without an interception and was sacked twice. He rushed six times for 51 yards, but 32 of those came on one run after New Orleans built a 31-14 lead.
“Just try to make ‘em as one-dimensional as possible, not allow Cam to run all over the place and affect the game with his arm and his legs,” said Rankins, who explained that New Orleans did that successfully by mixing things up. “I think disguising some coverages, giving him multiple looks, throwing a lot of things at him, not allowing him to get a beat on where the coverage is rolling down to, who’s coming, who’s not, different stunts up front. I think if you can always keep Cam on his toes, it definitely gives you the best chance to win.
“But we’re gonna have to come out and prove we can do it again for the third time.”
Turnovers, as always: Coaches and players always point to this as the biggest difference-maker -- for good reason. The Saints won the turnover battle 3-0 in the first meeting and tied it 1-1 in the rematch.
The Saints were plus-7 in turnovers on the season. They had 25 takeaways and 18 giveaways, with Brees’ eight interceptions marking his lowest total since 2004. The Panthers were minus-1 with 21 takeaways and 22 giveaways.
Carolina avoided facing breakout rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore in both meetings because of injuries. Lattimore has 5 interceptions, 1 forced fumble and 18 pass defenses in 13 games, making him the front-runner for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
He’ll add issues for a Carolina receiving corps that has very little experience.
“Creating takeaways was huge in our first game,” Saints linebacker Craig Robertson said. “That’s just something we’ve been doing well this year and something we’ll have to keep doing if we want to be successful.”