CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Hurricane Katrina washed away their homes, wounded their stadium and destroyed their city. The New Orleans Saints don’t want the tragedy to ruin their season.

It’s finally time to play football, a three-hour respite from worrying about Katrina’s destruction. The Saints know they’d better be focused, because the Carolina Panthers don’t plan on showing them any mercy in today’s opener.

“I don’t expect for the Carolina Panthers to feel sorry for us,” receiver Joe Horn said. “In their heart, I’m sure they will. But once that clock starts, I’m not going to run around and catch a ball and not expect Julius Peppers to knock my head off.”

Getting back on the field should restore a sense of normalcy – albeit temporarily – for the Saints, who have gone through two weeks of uncertainty and fear.

They fled New Orleans ahead of the storm, arriving in California days before their preseason finale against the Oakland Raiders. From there it was on to San Antonio, their new home.

But while the other 31 teams across the NFL turned their focus to preparing for the season opener, the Saints had bigger issues. They worried about their homes and possessions back in New Orleans, and wondered where they would live in Texas.

They hurriedly looked for housing in Texas, schools to enroll their children in, then wondered how quickly they could relocate their families.

So football was almost an afterthought until New Orleans coach Jim Haslett did his best to restore normalcy and put the focus back on the NFC South matchup against the Panthers.

“Ever since I was a kid, when you raise your child, you want to get them in a routine. I think it’s the same for a football player,” Haslett said. “We haven’t been in a normal routine. Our guys are really resilient and they adapt real well. They don’t complain. They do it.”

In Carolina, the Panthers have sympathy for the Saints. They understand what a difficult situation they are in, and share their concern for the Gulf Coast. No one can relate more than Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, a native of Breaux Bridge, La., and a former backup in New Orleans. Although his hometown escaped serious damage from Katrina, New Orleans was like a second home to Delhomme.

“I know these areas you see on TV well, it hits you right in the heart,” Delhomme said. “You do what you can. You give money or give clothes, things of that nature, to try to help these people. Hearing what some of their guys are saying about how they’re visiting refugees who are displaced and how the refugees are telling them they will be watching them Sunday, these guys are going to come ready to play. We have to be ready to play, too.

“That’s just how this world goes. Sometimes you don’t understand why, but we have to go out and do our job. We have to go and play a child’s game.”

That’s what both teams will do today, looking for a first victory that will move them to the front in the race for the division title.

For the Panthers, who are predicted to be a very good team, the game will be their first shot at redemption against a Saints team that knocked them out of playoff contention last season.

Decimated by injuries last season, the Panthers started 1-7 before rallying to win six of their final eight games. They closed the season at home against New Orleans, and a victory would have gotten them into the playoffs. Instead, the Saints won 21-18. Minutes after the game ended, the Saints were also knocked out of playoff contention on tiebreakers.

For Carolina, it was a bitter ending that its players have not forgotten.

“We remember what they did to us last season,” said center Jeff Mitchell. “It’s the season opener against a division opponent that knocked us out of the playoffs, and with what has happened to New Orleans recently, you know they are going to come in here ready to play. We shouldn’t have any problem getting up for them.”

The Saints won’t need any motivation.

Carolina coach John Fox was an assistant with the New York Giants following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and remembers how the team was inspired after visiting Ground Zero in New York City. Fox believes the Saints will do the same after meeting with evacuees from New Orleans.

“These players, they go and see these people and they rally around them,” Fox said. “They are in a very traumatic time in their life, and I think the positives of guys playing well for their local team helps uplift the spirits of those people.”

“It’s a good cause and a cause I’m sure we’re going to face here today.”

New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks will have his own agenda Sunday in a bid to silence critics that emerged after Delhomme signed with the Panthers. Delhomme was extremely popular in New Orleans, and fans clamored for him every time Brooks struggled. When Delhomme took off in Carolina and led the Panthers to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, Brooks was forced to defend himself.

He was angry, even after he beat Delhomme and the Panthers last season, and lashed out at the media.

“I said after the game that I’d be laughing at y’all, the fake experts in the media,” he said.

Saints running back Deuce McAllister said the criticism has been difficult for Brooks to deal with.

“It wore on him to a point,” McAllister said. “It’s a sad situation that we hear complaints that we kept AB over Jake. He needs to know that he’s our quarterback, that we’re behind him. Anything else is just talk.”

AP-ES-09-08-05 1537EDT

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