The New Orleans Saints put the rest of the NFC on notice; the Saints are back, and they are hungry. Led by a resurgent defense and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, the Saints have the tools to bring home the Lombardi Trophy, and they made sure to show them off against the Panthers. While Drew Brees is doing Drew Brees things, rookie sensation Alvin Kamara has put his name on the map as well. The third round pick quickly established himself as a premier playmaker on an offense full of them, racking up over 1500 yards from scrimmage. Former Alabama star Mark Ingram has been no slacker himself; the seven-year veteran also racked up over 1500 yards from scrimmage. These Saints are not the Saints we have been used to seeing. They can beat teams in any, and every aspect of the game, and they proved it tonight.
The Saints managed to strike first, and in a way, we’ve become accustomed to seeing from them. Drew Brees rocketed a bomb to a streaking Ted Ginn Jr, who took it 80 yards to the house. Just like that, it was 7-0 Saints. Cam Newton however, would not sit and watch the game get out of hand. Newton led the Panthers down the field on three straight drives after the Saints first touchdown, but could not break through into the end zone. While Carolina was settling for field goals, New Orleans was finding paydirt. New Orleans took three consecutive drives into the end zone, while Carolina settled for four consecutive field goals. Drew Brees surgically picked apart the Panthers secondary and finished the game 23/33 for 376 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Leading 21-9 after the break, the Saints held the Panthers to just a field goal for the fifth time of the game, and closed the gap to 21-12. Brees and Co. would regain their 12 point lead with a field goal of their own on the very next drive. But the Saints could not seem to close the door. Early in the 4th quarter, Cam Newton found Greg Olsen three times on the first drive of the quarter. Their final connection was a 14-yard laser up the seam, cutting the deficit to 24-19. After the Panthers defense forced a New Orleans punt, Newton and the offense had a chance to take the lead. However, an energized New Orleans defense forced a three and out, and on the next New Orleans possession, Alvin Kamara barrelled in from 2 yards out to extend the lead to 31-19. Just as the game looked to be out of reach, Newton hit Christian McCaffrey on an angle route over the middle, and McCaffrey did the rest. The rookie turned on the jets and raced past the Saints defense on his was for 6. It only took the Panthers 59 seconds to cut the lead back to 31-26, and hope was restored for Carolina fans. After being stopped on 3rd down around midfield, the Saints faced a crucial 4th and 2, as a first ended the game.
Sean Payton called one of the gutsiest calls of the postseason, and went for it. Brees was forced out of the pocket to his right, where he forced the ball downfield into coverage, and picked off by Mike Adams. With under 2 minutes remaining, Newton showed why he was the former NFL MVP, marching the Panthers to the Saints 21-yard line. After an intentional grounding penalty, the Panthers faced 4th and 23, with their season hanging in the balance. Arguably the best call of the year, the Saints surprised the Panthers with a blitz, and safety Vonn Bell sprinted into the backfield untouched, and, along with Newton, brought down any hope of a Panthers comeback.
With the win, New Orleans advances to Minnesota for the divisional round, while the Panthers head back to Carolina and prepare for the long offseason that lies ahead.