NEW ORLEANS — The time has come for Teddy Bridgewater to return to the place where he rehabilitated his NFL career and try to beat the team that helped him do it.Bridgewater made two starts in the Superdome last year during his 5-0 run as a fill-in starter for then-injured Saints quarterback Drew Brees.If he can win Sunday with his new team, it’ll move the Carolina Panthers (3-3) ahead of New Orleans (3-2) in the NFC South.“I hated to see him leave the building and now he’s over there. Now he’s the enemy. He’s a frenemy,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said playfully. “He’s an enemy, but he’s a friend. ... And I can’t wait to hit him.”The Saints tend to be effusive in their praise of Bridgewater, who was attempting to come back from a major knee injury that sidelined him nearly two full seasons when New Orleans made a trade with the New York Jets in 2018 to bring him in as Brees’ backup.“I really appreciated that time with Teddy, and I’m extremely happy for him and the opportunity that he has there in Carolina,” Brees said. “He’s going to be a franchise quarterback there for a very long time, and have a ton of success — and he deserves it.”Saints coach Sean Payton, who designs and calls New Orleans' offence, figured Bridgewater would be a good fit in his scheme and wasn't disappointed.“He has an outstanding skillset. He moves. He’s got good arm strength. He’s accurate,” Payton said. “He’s a fantastic leader and players play hard when they’re with him.”Likewise, Bridgewater is grateful for his time with Payton and Brees.“I remember talking to Sean Payton and he said he had a vision for me and I just trusted everything he told. And his vision that he had for me has actually come to life,” Bridgewater recalled, alluding to Payton’s pledge to help him eventually work his way back to starter status in the NFL. “I am just glad I had a chance to cross paths and learn so much.”When the 41-year-old Brees, after pondering retirement, decided to keep playing in 2020, Bridgewater entered free agency and was quickly lured to Carolina, where former Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady was the new offensive co-ordinator.“Once I heard Carolina offered and heard Joe Brady was here, a lot of it made sense to me,” Bridgewater said. “I’m thankful I have a chance to be here right now.”3,000 FANS FOR SUPERDOMEFor the first time this season, ticketed members of the public will be permitted in the Superdome for what is the Saints’ fourth home game.It’ll be just a fraction of the usual 73,000 during prior seasons.The City of New Orleans is allowing a maximum of 3,000 ticketed fans as part of an agreement that could gradually lead to greater numbers in the stadium for future games if COVID-19 figures in New Orleans remain stable or diminish as time goes on — and if games in the dome are not found to be a source of community spread.Prior to the agreement, the Saints had considered playing at LSU’s Tiger Stadium, an outdoor, 102,000-seat venue where 20,000-plus fans have been permitted to attend games.“It’s good too see that,” Payton said. “It’s great that we’ll have more and more fans there — safely, I might add — and kind of go from there.”DIFFERENT YET SIMILARPayton made a point in team meetings to remind his staff and players that the Panthers no longer resemble the divisional rival with which they’d become quite familiar when Ron Rivera was Carolina’s coach the previous nine seasons. New coach Matt Rhule, like Rivera, specializes in defence, but approaches it differently.“This season’s Carolina Panthers is entirely different than what we’ve known for years,” Payton said. “We’re seeing an entirely different defensive structure with new faces, an entirely different offensive structure."But while the Panthers have a new offence, Payton acknowledged that Brady's system looks familiar to that of the Saints.“Granted, from an offensive standpoint, there’s some similarities, but it’s not what we’ve had prior when we faced Carolina,” Payton said. "So, new offence, new defence, new co-ordinators, obviously new head coach. ... That’s where the preparation lies.”RED ZONE WOESCarolina is converting just 48% of trips in the red zone into touchdowns, which ranks 28th in the league. A week ago the Panthers scored on just one of three red zone opportunities in a 23-16 loss to the Bears, who have the league’s best red zone defence.This week could provide the perfect remedy for Bridgewater and Co. New Orleans has the league’s second-worst red zone defence, allowing teams to score touchdowns on 85% of red zone trips.THOMAS’ TIME?Saints receiver Michael Thomas, the 2019 Offensive Player of the Year after setting an NFL record with 149 catches in a season, was on schedule to return in Week 5 from an ankle injury before he was benched because of an outburst at practice.Payton said Thomas’ punishment has been lifted, but new questions arose about Thomas' fitness when he missed practice on Thursday with a hamstring injury.ANDERSON STEPPING UPWhile D.J. Moore is viewed as Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, free agent pickup Robby Anderson has excelled most in Brady’s offence.The former New York Jet is proving he’s more than a deep threat, hauling in 40 receptions for 566 yards, which is second-best in the league this season. He’s on pace to post a career-high 1,509 yards receiving. Rhule said he likes how Anderson has been running routes and his fearlessness in catching the ball across the middle and underneath coverage.COVID CONCERNSIt’s unclear if the Panthers will have kicker Joey Slye this week after he was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list on Wednesday. The pandemic also has affected Carolina’s offensive line depth with three reserves — Michael Schofield, Tyler Larsen and Trent Scott — also placed on the COVID-19/reserve list.___AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.___More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFLBrett Martel, The Associated Press
Before you set your lineup this week, make sure to check out these rankings.
CAROLINA (3-3) at NEW ORLEANS (3-2)Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT, FoxOPENING LINE — Saints by 6 1/2RECORD VS. SPREAD — Panthers 3-3; Saints 2-3SERIES RECORD — Saints lead 26-25LAST MEETING — Saints beat Panthers 42-10, on Dec. 29, 2019, at CarolinaLAST WEEK — Panthers lost to Bears 23-16; Saints had bye, beat Chargers 30-27 on Oct. 12AP PRO32 RANKING — Panthers No. 19, Saints No. 10PANTHERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (11), RUSH (16), PASS (9).PANTHERS Defence — OVERALL (11), RUSH (18), PASS (7).SAINTS OFFENSE — OVERALL (12), RUSH (18), PASS (12).SAINTS Defence — OVERALL (8), RUSH (6), PASS (19).STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater makes his first start against the Saints since leaving New Orleans in free agency after last season. Bridgewater went 5-0 as Saints starter last season while Drew Brees was recovering from a thumb injury. ... Bridgewater has passed for 300-plus yards in two of his three road starts this season while running the offence of first-year co-ordinator Joe Brady, who was an offensive assistant with the Saints in 2017 and 2018. ... Panthers RB Mike Davis had 52 yards rushing and his second TD on the ground of the season last week. Davis has scored rushing or receiving in four straight outings. Since taking over for the injured Christian McCaffrey in Week 3, Davis is tied for first in receptions by a running back with 24... WR Robby Anderson had four catches for 77 yards last week and has 100-plus yards receiving in two of three road games. ... WR D.J. Moore led the Panthers with five receptions for 93 yards in Week 6, giving him 90-plus yards in consecutive games. Moore had at least 80 yards in each of his previous two games against New Orleans. ... DE Brian Burns has a sack in each of his past two games against the Saints. ... DT Derrick Brown leads all rookies with six tackles for loss. ... CB Donte Jackson, who played for LSU, has nine career interceptions, most of anyone from the 2018 draft class. ... Rookie S Jeremy Chinn had his first-career interception last week and leads all rookies with 48 tackles. ... The Saints have won six of the last seven meetings. ... Saints WR Michael Thomas is expected to return from a Week 1 ankle injury and one-game Week 5 team suspension stemming from practice outburst. Thomas was the AP Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 after setting an NFL single-season record with 159 catches, and he was an All-Pro the past two seasons. ... Brees passed for 325 yards with one TD passing and another rushing in Week 5. In 13 career home games vs. Carolina as Saints QB, Brees has 3,949 yards passing (303.8 per game) and 31 TDs with 10 interceptions for a 102.1 rating. Brees has at least three TDs passing in each of his last two games against Carolina. ... RB Alvin Kamara had eight catches and 119 scrimmage yards (74 receiving, 45 rushing) in Week 5. Kamara ranks second in the NFL with 676 scrimmage yards and his seven total TDs tie for first. ... WR Emmanuel Sanders had a career-high 12 receptions for 122 yards in Week 5, his 22nd career 100-yard game. ... TE Jared Cook had a 41-yard TD catch in Week 5. It was his second TD this season and his second catch of more than 40 yards. ... DE Cameron Jordan had a season-high 10 tackles in Saints' last game, along with half a sack. DE Trey Hendrickson had 1 1/2 sacks, giving him a sack in four of his five games this season. ... LB Demario Davis had season-high 10 tackles in Week 5. ... Fantasy tip: With just three catches for 17 yards and no TDs in his lone game this season, Thomas is due for a big day if he returns as expected to the Saints' lineup. Otherwise, Sanders' career-high catch total in his previous game is the clearest sign yet of his improving chemistry with Brees. Sanders also has TDs in two of the Saints' three home games this season.___More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFLThe Associated Press