New Orleans had beaten Carolina by double-digits in both regular season games but faced a much more competitive Panthers team this time around. The Saints scored first and led the rest of the way, but Carolina never trailed by more than 12 points and had a chance to win on their final possession with 1:51 remaining.
Down by five, the Panthers quickly moved down to the Saints 21-yard line with the help of two long passes by quarterback Cam Newton. However, two Saints sacks and an intentional grounding penalty on Newton forced a turnover on downs, effectively ending the game with six seconds remaining.
The Saints now turn their attention to a tough road matchup with the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round. New Orleans opened the 2017 season with an ugly 29-19 loss at Minnesota, and will need a much better effort this time around to upset one of the NFL’s most complete teams and stay in Superbowl contention.
New Orleans Saints Outlast Carolina Panthers and Advance to NFC Divisional Round
The Saints offense finished the regular season ranked fourth in scoring and second in total yards, but quarterback Drew Brees was less productive than usual. He ended 2017 with his lowest passing yardage and touchdown total since joining the Saints in 2006, as New Orleans transformed into a run-first team.
Brees was still remarkably accurate as he finished with the highest single-season completion percentage (72.0 percent) in NFL history, and on Sunday he showed he can still light up opposing defenses when needed.
In their regular season meetings with Carolina, the Saints had the two highest rushing totals allowed by the Panthers all season; however, New Orleans struggled on the ground in this matchup. After averaging 148.5 yards rushing against the Panthers in the regular season, the Saints gained a season-low 41 yards on the ground at just 1.9 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Brees threw for 376 yards, his second-highest total of the season. He added two touchdowns, including an 80-yard strike to wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr for the Saints first score. Brees averaged a season-high 11.4 yards per pass attempt against Carolina as he completed passes to eight different receivers. Wide receiver Michael Thomas was spectacular and reliable as he caught eight passes for 131 yards on nine targets.
On defense, the Saints gave up 413 total yards as Newton had one of his most productive games of the season. New Orleans kept the Panthers in check early on, allowing just nine points on Carolina’s first four trips inside the red zone. The Panthers mostly abandoned the running game after New Orleans took a 21-6 lead just before halftime. However, Newton was able to step up and cut the Saints lead to five points late in the third quarter.
Newton finished with 349 passing yards, 37 yards on the ground, and two touchdowns, but he suffered plenty in the process. New Orleans sacked Newton four times and hit him on six other passing attempts. He was slow to get up after a big hit by defensive end Cameron Jordan, and later he had to leave the game following a sack by defensive tackle David Onyemata.
While the pass rush was solid, the Saints were plagued by coverage breakdowns all day. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen made a big difference after missing both regular season matchups. He went uncovered at times and caught eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown.
Running back Christian McCaffrey also caused problems for the Saints defense as he gained 101 yards on six catches. McCaffery kept the Panthers in the game late in the fourth quarter as he dashed 56 yards for a touchdown off a short pass by Newton.
This likely isn’t the kind of defensive performance Saints fans want to see a week before facing the Vikings, who shredded New Orleans for 470 yards in week one. At least the Saints showed plenty of offensive firepower on Sunday to contend with a Vikings defense that finished the regular season ranked first in yards allowed (275.9 per game) as well as points allowed (15.8 per game).