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New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) smiles as he leaves the field after the team defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFL football game on Sunday, December 19, 2021 in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo / Jason Behnken)

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For the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, it has been a season of upheaval and disappointment.

Still, their end-of-season meeting on Sunday has implications for the NFC playoffs for New Orleans and could influence the long-term trajectories of both teams.

“It has been a difficult year for many reasons,” said Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, who missed two games with a concussion earlier this season, has suffered a hand injury since 2 December and had to be absent on Monday. 20-3 loss of the night to Miami due to a COVID-19 outbreak that decimated the Saints roster.

“You go from July (when training camp starts) until now for the opportunity to play in the playoffs, and then you have to deal with more things,” Hill said.

The Saints (7-8) still have a realistic chance of making the playoffs, but need help.

New Orleans, Atlanta and Minnesota are one game behind San Francisco and Philadelphia for the last two NFC playoff spots with two games to go.

“We’re still right in the middle and we’re going to control what we can control,” said Hill, who could bolster his credentials as an NFL starter if he performs well. “I think we’ve been able to persevere quite well where we are still in the hunt.”

If the Saints – who have won NFC South the previous four seasons – manage to qualify for the playoffs again this season, they will have overcome as much difficulty as any team in the league.

Their first season since the retirement of career leader of the Saints, Drew Brees, began with a trip to Dallas for almost a month due to Hurricane Ida. This led to the NFL moving New Orleans’ home opener to Jacksonville, Florida.

Between injuries, COVID-19 outbreaks and coaching decisions, the Saints have started four quarters this season. After Jameis Winston was defeated with a knee injury, Trevor Siemian took over for four games – all losses. Hill then started three games – winning two – before the virus outbreak that put Hill and Siemian on the COVID-19 reserve list and left the Saints with no choice but to throw rookie Ian Book against the Dolphins.

The Panthers (5-10) have started three quarters this season, in which second-year coach Matt Rhule also fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

Sam Darnold, who was acquired before this season from the New York Jets, returns to the starting role he lost to injury earlier this season.

Darnold led the Panthers to a 26-7 victory over the Saints in Week 2, completing 26 of 38 passes for 305 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

“It was probably his best game,” Rhule said. Darnold “threw the ball on time, was aggressive in his throws, but didn’t make catastrophic mistakes.”

Darnold replaces Cam Newton, who returned to his first NFL team in November, but started out throughout a five-game skid.

That lost steak put the pressure on Rhule, who could use a solid finish to improve his chances of keeping his job.

COVID-19 CONCERNS

Of the 16 Saints players removed from the active roster last week due to COVID-19, 15 were back on Thursday. Those returning have included starters such as Hill, linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander, safety Malcolm Jenkins and tight end Adam Trautman.

But New Orleans also had two other starters – safety Marcus Williams and center Eric McCoy – placed on the club’s COVID-19 reserve list this week.

The Panthers, meanwhile, added safety Kenny Robinson and defensive end Darryl Johnson to their COVID-19 roster, which grew to 14 players before reserve defensive back Melvin Rashaan was reactivated on Thursday.

REAR BUG

The cornerback had been one of Carolina’s deepest positions, but now the Panthers are extremely thin after Stephon Gilmore was ruled out for Sunday with a groin injury. Gilmore is the fourth Panthers cornerback to be injured this season, joining Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson and AJ Bouye on the sidelines.

CJ Henderson, a 2020 Jacksonville Jaguars first-round pick, and Keith Taylor are set to start against the Saints on Sunday.

MISSING ATTACKS

Statistically speaking, the Saints’ offense is producing at its lowest level since coach Sean Payton took over in 2006 with Brees as QB. New Orleans ranks 31st in the NFL with 301.9 yards per game and 31st in assists (187).

The QB changes are only part of it. Top receiver Michael Thomas has missed the entire season with a setback as he recovers from ankle surgery in the offseason. Dynamic running back Alvin Kamara missed four games with leg injuries. But for Payton, one development that hampered both run blocking and pass protection was the absence of left tackle Terron Armstead (seven games) and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (six games). Armstead (knee) did not train on Thursday and Ramczyk, who is recovering from a knee injury, was still on New Orleans’ COVID-19 list.

Missing “both tackles, especially those two, I think it was a big challenge,” Payton said.

MOORE IS MORE

Carolina’s offense has struggled for the most part this season, but it’s hard to attribute it to wide receiver DJ Moore.

Moore has been a role model for Carolina with three straight 1,000-yard seasons. He ranks 14th in the league for receptions from yards (1,041) and is tied for 13th for receptions (83). As of Week 1 of the 2019 season, Moore has 3,409 receiving yards, the fifth-tallest in the NFL during that span.

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AP Sports writer Steve Reed contributed.

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