The Panthers' defense has an ax to grind with quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
Safety Charles Godfrey and several other defenders said they're still irked by the Saints decision to pursue NFL records rather than pull their starters in their 45-17 Week 17 rout of the Panthers last season. On Sunday, the division rivals meet in Carolina's home opener.
Brees threw for 389 yards and five touchdowns on New Year's Day, helping the Saints set NFL single-season records for total offensive yards, team yards passing and first downs. Coach Sean Payton didn't pull Brees until after his fifth touchdown pass put the Saints up 28 with 12:22 remaining.
"I thought it was a slap in the face," Godfrey said.
Godfrey and several other Carolina players said they're using that perceived lack of respect as motivation entering Sunday's showdown between the winless teams.
That doesn't surprise Brees.
"You do whatever you can to find motivation to kind of right the wrong," said Brees, who has won his last five starts against Carolina. "I know they're a prideful organization... They want to show that they're a much better team than maybe the team that came out that day."
The Panthers weren't much of a team in last year's season finale, at least defensively.
They're healthy now, but at the time end Charles Johnson was one of six defensive starters on injured reserve. He watched the game on television from his home in Charlotte.
"If you could hear the noise coming from my room while I was watching you'd be like, 'Man!,'" Johnson said. "I was not happy. There were a lot of things they did that were disrespectful in that game. That still lingers in my mind."
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who also didn't play because of injury, said the ultimate insult was when the Saints lined up in a run formation on fourth-and-1 from the New Orleans 41 with 6:33 remaining.
They never ran that play. The Saints were flagged for a false start and punted.
"It's the NFL and it's big boy football, but yes, I took that as a slap in the face," Munnerlyn said.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera had a different view.
While he said he wouldn't have elected to go for the NFL records at the expense of injuring his players, he said it was up to the Panthers to prevent the Saints from embarrassing them.
"In my opinion if you don't like it, you do something about it," Rivera said. "Your actions speak louder than words. That's who they are as a football team. If you don't like it, then win."
Saints right tackle Zach Strief said the Saints had to do what they had to do.
"It's not our job to worry about people's feelings," Strief said. "It's just not in your thought process in that situation at that point in the year. We're trying to keep that offense in rhythm to make a run at the Super Bowl."
Grudges aside, it's not like either team needs a whole lot of added incentive this week. Both teams had disappointing losses in Week 1.
The Saints still are in the midst of the bounties suspensions. Payton is gone for the season, interim head coach Joe Vitt for the next five games, while middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith are in limbo until they meet with Commissioner Roger Goodell next week — Smith will play Sunday. New Orleans is most concerned about fixing the porous defense.
Playing without Vilma, the Saints allowed rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III to throw for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-32 loss to Washington. On Sunday they face a quarterback in Cam Newton who's similar in style to Griffin, only a lot taller and more physical.
"He's a mutant, almost," said Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas. "It's got to be a team effort to stop this guy when we're hitting this ball carrier. Because at the end of the day, when he's running the ball, he's not a quarterback anymore. He's a ball carrier. He's a running back, a big one."
Carolina's biggest concern coming into the season was its defense, but suddenly it's the offense that is marred with question marks. The Panthers, third in rushing a year ago, managed just 10 yards on the ground in a 16-10 loss to Tampa Bay.
On paper it would seem playing the Saints' defense would be just what the Panthers need, given what RG3 did to them. But veteran wide receiver Steve Smith cautions that isn't necessarily the case.
"Teams make adjustments every week," Smith said. "We're going to key on some things we saw (on tape), but they're going to adjust just like we're going to adjust."
There's plenty at stake.
The loser of this game falls into a 0-2 hole and could find itself two games back in the division come Monday. The Panthers have another big concern with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants coming to town Thursday night.
So while the Panthers may have found a source for their own motivation in the form of gaining respect, Strief said the Saints have their own rallying call.
"We're angry because we didn't play like we could have last week," Streif said, "so there's motivation to not let that happen again."