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The NFC South co-leaders play each other in two of their next three games, with New Orleans hosting the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night and the Saints hitting the road for a Dec. 22 game in Charlotte, N.C.

Carolina (9-3) had its way with the New Orleans defense last season, piling up 79 points, 993 yards of total offense and 51 first downs in two victories.

But that was before Rob Ryan took over as defensive coordinator for the Saints (9-3).

Ryan replaced Steve Spagnuolo in the offseason and has taken a New Orleans defense that was statistically the worst in NFL history in 2012 and turned it into the eighth-best unit in the league this year.

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“There were a lot of things about last season that players, coaches want to move on from and move past,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I credit them for anxiously getting started in the spring and offseason. I think Rob and his staff on defense have done a good job of really giving his players a plan they can really sink their teeth into, that fits their skill sets. His personality is contagious. He’s got a lot of passion for the sport and I think his players feed off that.”

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said his staff has studied last season’s game against Dallas. The Panthers lost to the visiting Cowboys 19-14; Ryan was the defensive coordinator for Dallas.

“What Rob does is a little more, I don’t want to say dynamic, but it most certainly is different from what they (the Saints) were last year,” Rivera said. “They were more of a four-man front. Rob mixes it up. … He’s going to shift and move his guys around.

“He’s going to blitz. He’s going to be different and we’ve got to be on our P’s and Q’s as far as that’s concerned.”


• The Baltimore Ravens, who host Minnesota on Sunday, activated tight end Dennis Pitta. Pitta had been on injured reserve with a designation to return while working back from a dislocated and fractured hip suffered during training camp.

• Ex-Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn will start his second straight game for Green Bay on Sunday against visiting Atlanta. Packers superstar Aaron Rodgers hasn’t played since his left collarbone was broken in a 27-20 loss to Chicago on Nov. 4.

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