NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Demoralized? After an 0-3 start? Saints quarterback Drew Brees won't hear a word of it.
``We know how good of a team we are. We proved that time and time again,'' Brees said. ``We know that just about everybody has jumped off the bandwagon now, and that's fine. It's just us and we are all alone. It's our time to get back on track here and get back to our earlier form.''
What could be their last chance to do so in a meaningful game arrives Sunday, when the Saints host the Carolina Panthers (2-2).
Lose and New Orleans must attempt to become only the second team to start 0-4 and still make the postseason since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff system in 1990.
As it is, only three teams have overcome an 0-3 start to make the postseason since then, including the 1992 San Diego Chargers squad that did it after opening with four losses.
The Saints were supposed to be even better this season than last, when they advanced to the franchise's first NFC championship game.
Instead, New Orleans has mystified its fans and most everyone else by opening with three loses, each by 17 points or more. Saints players and coaches say they understand if everyone else's expectations have fallen, even while they insist their own haven't changed.
``There's 13 weeks left in the season. There's a lot left to this story,'' Payton said. ``We've gone through three losses now. We've got to find a way to get a win.''
With two victories, Carolina is still within close range of division-leading Tampa Bay in the NFC South. But the Panthers have some problems of their own, exposed after a 20-7 loss at home against those very Buccaneers.
After the loss, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins accused his teammates of lacking heart and said the team owes fans an apology. Head coach John Fox wasn't happy Jenkins expressed those sentiments publicly, but he didn't punish the three-time Pro Bowl pick.
``I would prefer for our comments to be in house,'' Fox said. ``I don't know that I necessarily agree with it, but he's part of a team and he has a voice. We don't have gag orders. He'll have to handle that with his teammates.''
The Panthers held a players-only meeting this week to address widespread dissatisfaction in the locker room. It may result in a better effort, but there's also the question how well the Panthers' offense has adjusted to quarterback David Carr, who became the starter last week with Jake Delhomme sidelined by a sore throwing elbow.
Carr completed 19 of 41 passes for 155 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the loss to the Buccaneers. He was sacked three times and struggled to find playmaker extraordinaire Steve Smith.
Smith was frustrated, seen yelling into a phone linking him to offensive coaches in the press box. Carr said he made an extra effort this week to communicate better with a player he called ``the best receiver in the league that I've worked with.''
``We're talking about things, watching film, talking different routes, about what he's thinking and hopefully we'll make this better,'' Carr said.
Smith has had some of his best games against the Saints. In the Panthers' two victories against New Orleans last season, Smith had a combined 17 catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns.
This week, he'll be going against a depleted secondary, with starting cornerback Jason David out for at least a month with a broken left forearm.
As it is, the Saints have been victimized by a number of long passing plays, and Smith will test them again.
``We've got to contain him, otherwise we'll have more big pass plays and we'll be talking about the same thing again next week,'' Payton said.
New Orleans is hurting on offense, as well, with running back Deuce McAllister out for the season with torn left knee ligaments. That means New Orleans' hopes of turning its season around could ride on how Reggie Bush handles being the Saints' featured running back.
So far, his season hasn't gone well: Bush has rushed for only 80 yards in three games.
But the Saints have looked refreshed and upbeat coming out of their bye week, while Bush has said he's eager to prove he can be an every-down running back.
``For us to be 0-3, a lot of people expect it to be almost a depressing atmosphere,'' Bush said. ``But for us, I think a lot of people on this team are just chomping at the bit and waiting to put together a good game. ... We definitely feel like we can make the playoffs.''

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