Saints hold on to sweep Panthers, advance in NFC Playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS – Let’s begin with the obvious.

Beating a good football team three times in one season is very difficult to do.

The Carolina Panthers are a good football team, a very good team when Cam Newton plays like MVP Cam and Greg Olsen plays.

The New Orleans Saints are a better football team with a great quarterback, a good running game, which was non-existent on this day, and a resilient defense which has been decimated by injuries.

It was the first home playoff game since the 2011 season. It was the first playoff game since 2013. It was playoff football at its best, compelling until the final seconds.

While we can clearly question a coaching decision late in the game, you cannot question the job Sean Payton has done this season. He made difficult changes on his coaching staff. Those had paid off handsomely. He made a concerted commitment to run the football. That has paid off handsomely.

Now, he, his players and Saints fans hope it can pay off once more next week.

Here are my quick takes from the Saints’ 31-26 win over Carolina:

**Terron Armstead, Trey Hendrickson and Michael Hoomanawanui were all active after missing the last few weeks with injuries.

**Jeff Charleston, Randall Gay, Roman Harper, Remi Ayodele, Chris Reis, Tracy Porter, Scott Shanle, Scott Fujita, Billy Miller, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Jon Stinchcomb, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Garrett Hartley were all on field for a rousing introduction.

**Hartley appeared at the Saints Hall of Fame Museum prior to the game, signing autographs and taking pictures with adoring fans. Bush was introducted as the Legend of the Game captain and received a roaring ovation. Bush wore No. 91, in honor of his teammate, the late Will Smith.

**Carolina won the toss and deferred, giving the Saints the ball first.

**The Saints promptly went three-and-out. On third-and-two, New Orleans went with a curious play, lining up little used Tommylee Lewis at running back. On a power pitch right, he lost four yards.

**Carolina called timeout after its first offensive play of the game, amidst deafening crowd noise.

**Cam Jordan batted down (or tipped) his 12th pass of the season on Carolina’s second offensive series.

**Greg Olsen, who did not play in the first two games against the Saints, made his presence felt early with a key 15-yard reception to convert a third down for the Panthers on their second possession. He then caught an eight-yard pass to the New Orleans seven-yard line.

**Carolina stalled at the New Orleans seven and Graham Gano, who was 29-of-30 on the season, missed a chip shot 25-yard field goal, pushing it wide right. That concluded a 15-play drive covering 63 yards, taking 7:37 off the clock.

**The Saints responded immediately, with Drew Brees hitting Ted Ginn, Jr. on an 80-yard bomb against Ginn’s former team to give the Saints a 7-0 lead with 1:46 to play in the quarter. The score is the longest ever by a player against his former team in the playoffs.

**On the play, Ginn was lined up in the slot with no one within seven yards of him, giving him a free release. While Carolina rolled a linebacker and defensive back to him, given Ginn’s speed and head start, he simply outran James Bradberry to the post and Brees connected with him.

**Ken Crawley was victimized by Kaelin Clay, beaten deep and committed a clear pass interference, resulting in a 39-yard penalty to the New Orleans 13-yard line as the first quarter closed.

**Carolina had the ball for 11:36 of the first quarter to just 3:24 for New Orleans.

**Carolina drove to the New Orleans nine-yard line but once again, the Saints defense stiffened. This time, Gano kicked a 27-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 14:12 to play in the half. The drive covered 66 yards in six plays, taking 2:34 off the clock.

**The Saints suffered a crucial loss early in the second quarter when Andrus Peat went down with a serious left shin injury. Unfortunately, he was carted off the field. Peat has been invaluable, sliding back and forth from guard to tackle all season long.

**New Orleans came up with an extremely impressive drive, going 75 yards in nine plays with Brees connecting with a wide open Josh Hill on a nine-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-3 Saints with 9:04 to play in the half. The drive took 5:08 off the clock, giving the New Orleans defense a much-needed rest.

**Brees showed how good he is, going 7-for-7 for 78 yards and the score on the drive, picking the Panthers apart.

**Carolina responded with another long drive, going 54 yards in 12 plays, taking 6:47 off the clock. Once again, the Saints bent but did not break, forcing a 39-yard field goal by Gano to make it 14-6 with 2:47 to play in the half.

**New Orleans got it done again, driving 75 yards in eight plays, taking 2:04 off the clock with fullback Zach Line scoring on a one-yard run to make it 21-6 with 43 seconds left in the half. The big plays of the drive were turned in by Hill and Coleman, who caught passes of 25 and 18 yards, respectively, from Brees.

**Carolina got an important field goal just before halftime, driving 35 yards in five plays with Gano atoning for his easy miss earlier in the game with a 58-yard field goal to make it 21-9 at halftime.

**The 58-yard field goal tied the NFL record for the longest field goal in postseason history, established by Pete Stoyanovich of Miami in the 1990 playoffs.

**Brees was 13-of-18 for 230 yards and two touchdowns in the half.

**New Orleans had 32 offensive snaps in the first half and amassed 244 yards (230 passing) and 21 points.

**Carolina had the ball for 19:21 to just 10:39 for the Saints in the half.

**The Panthers took the second half kickoff and drove 64 yards in nine plays, taking 4:02 off the clock. Once again, Carolina marched smartly down the field and once again, they stalled in the red zone when Jonathan Freeny sacked Cam Newton on third down, forcing a 29-yard field goal by Gano to make it 21-12 with 10:58 to play in the third quarter. The drive covered 64 yards in nine plays, taking 4:02 off the clock.

**The Saints got the field goal back, driving 10 plays, going 36 yards, taking 4:53 off the clock with Wil Lutz drilling a 57-yard field goal to make it 24-12 with 6:05 to play in the third quarter. It was huge as a miss would have given the Panthers the ball near midfield. The 57-yard field goal tied Lutz’ longest as a Saint.

**As a result, it was the first time that there were two field goals of 57 yards or longer in an NFL playoff game.

**The Saints defense then recorded their first three-and-out of the game with Jordan recording his 14th sack of the season.

**Carolina then finally finished a drive, going 68 yards in eight plays, taking 3:45 off the clock with Newton hitting Greg Olsen on a 14-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 24-19 with 12:47 to play in the game. On the touchdown, Olsen whipped Rafael Bush.

**Tyler Davison sacked Cam Newton at the 8:42 mark of the final quarter. Newton tried to get up and was punished by David Onyemata. He left the game for one play but would return.

**Brees moved in to sole possession of third place in NFL history with his seventh career 300-yard passing game in playoff action. He was in a four-way tie with Joe Montana, Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner.

**Undaunted, Carolina and Newton answered very quickly, needing just three plays to go 75 yards, taking just 59 seconds to do so with Newton connecting with Christian McCaffrey on a 56-yard touchdown pass to make it 31-26 with 4:09 to play. It was too easy.

**The Saints offense then made one first down and Carolina burned all three of its timeouts. On third-and-two from the Carolina 47-yard line, the Saints ran Kamara right and the offensive front got blown up. Kamara gained nothing and New Orleans seemingly had to punt it.

**Instead, Sean Payton chose to go for it on fourth-and-two from the 47-yard line. Under pressure, Brees rolled right, threw it up for grabs and it was intercepted by Mike Adams.

**By all accounts, it appeared to be the wrong move. That said, the Saints have thrived under Sean Payton and his fearless, gambling style. With a quarterback like Brees, there is huge confidence that he will find a way to make a play. It did not happen.

**There was also the issue of the Saints defense, which ended up on the field for 33:55 in this game and showed vulnerability in the second half. Fortunately, they bent but did not break on several occasions.

**Newton completed passes of 18 yards to Devin Funchess and 21 yards to Clay and the Panthers reached the New Orleans 21-yard line with under a minute to play.

**Jordan then got great pressure, forcing intentional grounding on Newton, putting the ball at the 34-yard line with 34 seconds left. It also cost the Panthers 10 seconds, by rule, leaving Carolina with 24 seconds remaining.

**Newton then threw into the end zone incomplete.

**With 11 seconds remaining, Dennis Allen dialed up a perfect call with Vonn Bell blitzing up the middle and sacking Newton to clinch the victory.

**Olsen, McCaffrey, Ginn and Thomas all had 100-yard receiving days in this shootout.

**The Saints were 2-for-8 (25%) on third down conversions and 0-for-1 on fourth down. Carolina was 8-for-17 (47%) on third down.

The Saints are now 5-0 at home in the playoffs under Sean Payton and with Drew Brees at quarterback. It was not easy. Did anyone think it would be?

Brees finished with a 115.2 quarterback rating, despite the interception. He is a great player and a player you have to love having him running the show in the postseason. Jordan is a great football player on the other side of the ball.

Carolina knows the Saints as well as anyone. The Panthers stacked the line-of-scrimmage with seven, eight and even nine-man boxes throughout to take away the run. They keyed on Kamara and largely took him out of the game. The Saints could not run the ball, rushing for just 41 yards. They still won the game because they still have Brees. This offense can beat teams in more ways than one.

The Panthers also avoided Marshon Lattimore for much of the day, another smart move.

On this day, players like Hill and Coleman stepped up and that is crucial moving forward. Ginn really delivered against his old team and Thomas, well, he was himself.

The Saints move on to face the Vikings in Minnesota next Sunday. The Vikings handled the Saints there top open the season but that was a long time ago. Still, the Vikings are a clear favorite, with a superb defense, a quarterback managing games very well and a solid run game.

It will require a superb effort by the Saints to win but it can happen. You have to like Brees going against Case Keenum.

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Ken Trahan

Ken Trahan


Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE Owner and CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Football Foundation, College…

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