The New Orleans Saints (12-2) are one win away from securing home-field advantage in the NFC after holding off the Carolina Panthers (6-8) on Monday night, 12-9, to close out Week 15. Here’s what we learned:
1. The once-unstoppable Saints offense sputtered for the third time in as many weeks, but did enough against a fierce Panthers defense to come away with their league-best 12th win of the season. Behind an offensive line that was without starting left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger, who suffered a concussion, Drew Brees saw good pressure and even better coverage from Carolina and had his rhythm thrown off for much of the evening. The MVP candidate relied on Alvin Kamara (109 total yards, 21 touches) to move New Orleans along for most of the game, but New Orleans was churning best when Michael Thomas (7 rec, 49 yards) found a rare soft spot in Carolina’s defense. Brees wasn’t without major errors. The QB threw one pick in the run of play on an underthrow near the end of the first half and then tossed another on the goal-line following New Orleans’ lone touchdown in the fourth quarter. Trying to squeeze a two-point conversion toward Kamara through a triangle of Panthers defenders, Brees instead threw right at speedy rookie Donte Jackson, who took the ball end zone to end zone for the ever-rare pick-two, creating a four-point swing. On New Orleans’ ensuing drive, the Saints relied on Kamara, Thomas and Mark Ingram yet again to wind down the clock before attempting to ice the game with a jet sweep to Tommylee Lewis. The backup receiver inexplicably fumbled the ball out of the end zone from the 1, giving Carolina one more shot at a victory. Cam Newton couldn’t cash in, and New Orleans blew a sigh of relief.
All is not right with this Saints offense. A lack of depth on the offensive line and in the receiving corps is glaring and the Saints‘ lack of efficiency on third down (4-for-13) will not fly in January. But New Orleans is in prime position with two games left to secure home-field advantage in the postseason, and that might be enough. The Saints have not lost in the Superdome in the playoffs during the Brees-Sean Payton era.
2. The Panthers‘ season is all but over with Monday night’s loss. Carolina falls to 6-8, one-and-a-half games behind the Vikings and a game behind the Eagles and Redskins in pursuit of the sixth seed. Save for an unlikely confluence of events (Carolina winning out, Washington and Minnesota losing out), the Panthers are donezo, and so could be the Ron Rivera era in Charlotte.
3. It should be noted on record that Carolina’s defense went out with a roar. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis combined for 25 tackles in the middle of Carolina’s defense, making overeager writers (yours, included) quietly walk back their claims that Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch had taken up the Panthers duo’s mantle as tops in the league. They can still bring it. Davis earned a pass defensed on Brees’ first-half pick, and Kuechly was a sideline-to-sideline fiend. His second-half shoestring tackle on Kamara was one to behold. They were backed up by aggressive coverage by Jackson, James Bradberry and a head-hunting Eric Reid.
But for all of the defense’s success, Newton’s offense had nothing with which respond. Clearly hampered by a shoulder injury that has limited him on the practice field and essentially kept him off the stat sheet (131 passing yards, his fourth-fewest ever), Cam struggled mightily again on deep throws, often throwing into the dirt between the hashes. Newton’s underthrown interception toward Devin Funchess in the red zone at the end of the first half highlighted the QB’s arm-strength issues. Newton took plenty of hard hits, too, and appeared distressed on and off the field. Cam wasn’t the only offensive offender — DJ Moore’s third-quarter fumble in Saints territory led directly to New Orleans’ game-winning touchdown drive — but his failings represent that of the team entire.
Asked whether he would consider sitting Newton for the final two games now that their playoff hopes are all but extinguished, Panthers coach Ron Rivera told reporters, "No. What we’re going to do is see how he goes, like normal. We will continue to evaluate and see what the doctors have to say. But every week’s been the same and we will continue."
4. Some positive Panthers news. In just his second season, McCaffrey broke the franchise record for most scrimmage yards in a single season. With 120 yards from scrimmage, the Panthers dual-threat back passed DeAngelo Williams’ mark set in 2008 (1,636). McCaffrey has been the heart and soul of Carolina’s offense for the bulk of this season and proved to be at the center of its biggest play on Monday night. On a first-half short fourth-down conversion at midfield, McCaffrey took a handoff from Newton, faked an outside run and launched a deep ball to backup tight end Chris Manhertz for Carolina’s sole touchdown of the game. The only other player with at least 50 passing, rushing and receiving yards in a single game? Walter Payton. Let’s make that "triple-threat back."
5. Watch out, Chicago and Baltimore. This Saints defense is dominating down the stretch. For the fourth time in six games, the Saints‘ defense held its opponent under 300 yards. Over the last six contests, New Orleans opponents are averaging 12.3 points and 2.3 turnovers per game. The league’s leading rush defense held Carolina’s ground attack, which entered the game churning at a league-high 5.4 yards per attempt, to just 98 yards. The held McCaffrey to just 3.5 YPA and created multiple unmanageable third-down attempts for the sore-shouldered Newton. New Orleans’ offense might not be operating at full force, but Dennis Allen’s defense is playing its best ball when it matters.