The Carolina Panthers faced two opponents Sunday at the Superdome -- the New Orleans Saints and the enemy within.
Doubt had begun to invade their psyche during a three-game losing streak, which troubled coach Dom Capers and made their attempt to win for the first time in 35 days almost a necessity.
``Doubt is kind of like a monster that overtakes and poisons everything,'' Capers said.
The antidote, at least temporarily, was delivered by a defense that attacked New Orleans rookie quarterback Danny Wuerffel like the meanest of monsters in a 13-0 victory over the Saints.
Wuerffel, making his first career start, was sacked eight times, intercepted twice and nearly lost his head.
With 32 seconds remaining, he sat on the field with his helmet on backward because of the ferocity of the game's final sack. Two hits on him, first by safety Mike Minter and then by linebacker Andre Royal, caused his helmet to do a 180-degree twist.
Carolina (3-4) hopes Sunday's win leads to a similar turnaround in its season.
``We look at today as the first step back in the right direction,'' said Capers. ``We know it's a long season. It's not how you start in this business, it's how you finish.''
Capers' restoration project continues next Sunday at Ericsson Stadium against 1-6 Atlanta -- another NFC West weakling.
The Saints (2-6) never threatened to score against the Panthers in suffering their first shutout loss since 1983. New Orleans had scored in 216 consecutive games, the fifth-longest such streak in NFL history.
The Saints gained 200 yards, never drove inside the Panthers 30 and raised their NFL-worst turnover total to 30 with Wuerffel's two interceptions.
``We're as bad on offense as I've seen, and I'm going back a long time,'' Saints coach Mike Ditka said bluntly.
Carolina's offense didn't dazzle in quarterback Kerry Collins' return to the lineup following a one-game benching, but it followed the prescribed game plan of being opportunistic and short on mistakes.
Collins looked sharp, especially in the first half. He completed 23-of-31 passes for 204 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That was a major improvement over his nine turnovers in two previous starts.
``You've got to give that guy some credit,'' said tight end Wesley Walls. ``He's been beat around and people have been trying to beat him down. For him to step out on that football field today with the confidence level he had, you would've never known the things he has gone through.''
Give an assist to cornerback Eric Davis, who made both interceptions to set up scoring drives for Collins and the offense.
After the Panthers had taken a 3-0 lead on John Kasay's first field goal in four games, a 25-yarder, Davis made his first pickoff of Wuerffel and returned it to the Saints 32.
Collins took full advantage, passing 15 yards to Mark Carrier on the first play and later connecting with Anthony Johnson for the touchdown on a 14-yard screen pass.
It was a nifty call by the coaches, tricking the Saints by diverting from the tendencies Carolina has shown this season.
Former NFL quarterback Roman Gabriel, the Panthers' radio color commentator, pointed out before the game the team had thrown to running backs on just two of 49 plays inside the opponents' 20.
``It was a real good call,'' said Johnson. ``It caught them off guard. I don't think they expected a screen that deep in the red zone. On top of that, it was a great job of executing it by Kerry, myself and the line to get the touchdown.''
Capers called it ``one of the best-executed screens of the season.''
Collins dumped the ball off to Johnson, who followed the block of left guard Matt Campbell into the end zone for a 10-0 lead with 43 seconds left in the first quarter.
Davis' second interception came late in the second quarter when he picked off an underthrown pass from Wuerffel to Andre Hastings in the end zone.
Collins got the offense headed toward another score with passes of 23 and 13 yards to Walls and a 10-yard completion to Rae Carruth.
However, the drive stalled at the Saints 5 and Kasay upped the lead to 13-0 with a 23-yard field goal with seven seconds left in the first half.
There was no scoring in the second half, but none was needed.
The defense never allowed Wuerffel to drive the Saints as close as field-goal range.
It also helped that Carolina punter Ken Walter came through with one of his best games, pinning the Saints inside their 20 five times.
Capers said putting New Orleans in bad field position was one of the Panthers' priorities and Ditka admitted it had been one of his primary concerns.
``It seems like we never had field position outside the 20-yard line,'' said Ditka. ``You just can't work on an 80-yard field and win.''
And despite a convincing victory, nose tackle Greg Kragen said the Panthers realize they still have the equivalent of a long drive ahead to revive their playoff chances.
``This is a relief to get a win and it feels good, but it doesn't mean that we're all fixed,'' Kragen said. ``It's a process. We're still working on it. It's going to be a continuous thing for the rest of the year.''
``This is a relief to get a win and it feels good, but it doesn't mean that we're all fixed. It's a process. We're working on it.''