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Backup linemen, big-play secondary lead New Orleans Saints to victory over Carolina

Saints defense holds sixth straight opponent to 17 points or less

Carolina Panthers' D.J. Moore (12) fumbles the ball after being hit by New Orleans Saints' Vonn Bell (24) in the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. New Orleans recovered the ball. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

Charlotte, N.C. – If you're a fan of bare-knuckled brawls, the New Orleans Saints' 12-9 victory over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Monday night left you pleased.

Once again, the Saints (12-2) found a way to win and because of it, they're one victory away from securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the playoffs. In other words, the Saints are one victory away from guaranteeing that, if they advance to the Super Bowl in Atlanta, they won't have to set cleats outside of New Orleans before that game.

Take it, improve upon it, and set sights on higher goals. That's the mantra now, and several players made sure it continues to apply.

OFFENSE: Three names you ordinarily wouldn't see here – backup offensive linemen Cameron Tom and Will Clapp, and line coach Dan Roushar. Tom and Clapp, because they had to step into a difficult setting due to injuries at center (Max Unger) and left tackle (Jermon Bushrod) and hold up against a very good Carolina defensive line in the second half. Tom hasn't played much this season, and Clapp had been inactive every game leading up to Monday night, but was needed because of the injury sustained by Michael Ola last week. But the Saints ran for 94 of their 155 yards in the second half, and Tom and Clapp were scrappy and productive. And let's not forget Roushar; he's the man tasked with keeping the linemen ready, and that includes multi-position training for guys like Tom and Clapp. Roushar is understated and underrated, but not underappreciated.

DEFENSE: It's hard to pick and choose any individuals over the group defensively, because the Saints are playing as well as any unit in the league right now. But cornerback Eli Apple and safety Vonn Bell made point-saving plays in a game where points were precious and few. Apple's end-zone interception near the end of the first half kept Carolina's lead at 7-6, and he totaled two pass breakups and three tackles. Bell almost one-upped him in the third quarter. With the score still 7-6, Carolina receiver D.J. Moore took a handoff at the 50 and wove through the Saints' defense during a 22-yard run. He didn't detect Bell on the rundown, though, and Bell chased him down and punched out the ball, with linebacker A.J. Klein recovering the fumble. That set up the game-winning, 84-yard touchdown drive by the Saints.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Thomas Morstead didn't just punt four times for a 42-yard average, including a 41.8-yard net. He also survived a personal foul penalty when his plant leg was wiped out. Morstead toughed it out, and remained effective. There's a reason he's one of the best in the business.

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