Charlotte, NC - By Steve Reed, Associated Press
In a recent TV commercial, New Orleans Saints quarterback Luke McCown somberly ponders the existence of a wireless network provider's backup generators, saying, "I bet if they had their chance, some of those backups would really shine."
McCown hasn't had his chance to shine in New Orleans because Drew Brees has been so durable, never missing a start with the Saints because of injury since joining the team in 2006.
But Brees won't be keeping that streak alive, and it's up to McCown to help prevent the Saints from falling into a 0-3 hole to start the season this Sunday at Carolina.
Brees bruised his right rotator cuff in New Orleans' 26-19 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2, and said earlier this week he has "every intention of playing." On Friday, coach Sean Payton squashed that idea, saying Brees didn't have enough zip on his passes.
Panthers safety Roman Harper, who spent eight seasons with Brees in New Orleans, said he's seen the 36-year-old Brees hurt before but "he always finds a way to play." So he and Panthers coach Ron Rivera, despite preparing as if Brees would go — "if we get the other guy, then so be it," Rivera noted — now will face McCown.
McCown is in his third season as Brees' backup. His only pass attempt in New Orleans came as a holder on a fake field goal. McCown has started nine games in 12 seasons, the most recent coming in 2011 for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
With Brees out, Saints fans might not know what to do. The previous start he missed was in Carolina at the end of the 2009 season, when the Saints were already assured the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs en route to their only Super Bowl triumph.
A loss would put them three games behind the unbeaten Panthers in the NFC South.
Here some other things to consider in this matchup.
KUECHLY'S STATUS: On the other side of the ball, the Panthers could be without star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for the second straight week. Kuechly missed practice Wednesday and Thursday while waiting to be cleared by an independent physician from a concussion he suffered in Week 1. A.J. Klein proved to be up to the task of filling in for Kuechly last week, helping the Panthers beat the Houston Texans 24-17. Klein even had an interception that set up Carolina's final touchdown.
RUN AGROUND: Saints right tackle Zach Strief said New Orleans' running game is probably the club's No. 1 concern on offense after averaging fewer than 80 yards rushing through two weeks. The result has been more third-and-long situations, but also forced their offense to become one-dimensional, and by extension, predictable. "If we can run the ball with efficiency, then you end up in different situations; the playbook is a lot harder to defend. There's a lot more plays, a lot more options," Strief said. With C.J. Spiller's health improving following his return on a limited basis last week, the Saints hope he'll join with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson to improve run production. But they'll face a stingy Carolina defense that has allowed the fewest points in the league and is holding opponents to a league-low 3.64 yards per play on first down.
RECEIVING OPTIONS: Panthers rookie second-round draft pick Devin Funchess could see extended playing time on Sunday with veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery nursing a high ankle sprain. Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown are the starters, but Funchess will likely see more reps as the No. 3 receiver.
YOUNG DEFENSE: The Saints have had three rookies, as well as a first-year player out of the CFL either starting or playing regularly on defense. And the unit has done enough to keep them in games until the final minutes. Rookie outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha has forced fumbles that resulted in turnovers in each of his first two games to go along with a sack. First-round pick Stephone Anthony, who has started at middle linebacker, is among the team's tackle leaders. Delvin Breaux, who played two years in Canada, has started at cornerback while the Saints await the return of Keenan Lewis.
SEEING YELLOW: Payton said this week the number of penalties his team has committed "bothers me," and is something New Orleans must "clean up quickly." Through two games, the Saints have been penalized 17 times for 188 yards. And as Payton noted, those are just the penalties that were accepted.
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans, Louisiana contributed to this report.