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Defense again clamps down for New Orleans Saints in victory over Carolina | NFL Week 17 analysis

Two forced turnovers, seven sacks headline smothering performance


The New Orleans Saints on Sunday in the Caesars Superdome got back to being the New Orleans Saints of this season in an 18-10 victory over Carolina that kept alive the playoff hopes for the Saints (8-8) entering the regular-season finale against Atlanta next Sunday.

That is, they scored some timely points, were solid if not spectacular on special teams, and hopped onto the shoulders of a defense that was at its dominating best against the Panthers.

All in all, it was New Orleans' third victory in the last four games and made the next game, against Atlanta (7-9), another must-win affair for the Saints.

OFFENSE: It wasn't pretty, hasn't been pretty and isn't going to be pretty. But it was, has been and will continue to have to be enough. The Saints scored a touchdown for the first time in three games, were 1 for 3 in the red zone and rushed for just 73 yards, averaging 2.6 yards per carry. But the passing game showed some life (207 yards on 17 completions) and produced a couple of chunk plays. Carolina (5-11) simply wouldn't budge against the run and though New Orleans didn't take complete advantage, it produced a 10-play, 73-yard drive that led to a field goal at the end of the first half that was significant. The red zone offense has to be better, though.

DEFENSE: In the last four games, during which the Saints are 3-1, the defense has allowed two touchdowns and 32 points. Sunday simply was the latest installment – 178 yards allowed and three yards per play, two forced turnovers (an interception and fumble recovery, both by Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold), seven sacks (3.5 by defensive end Cameron Jordan), eight quarterback hits, 10 tackles for loss and three passes defensed. New Orleans probably played better in a 9-0 shutout against Tampa Bay – the Buccaneer offense is more high-powered – but not much better. The defense has led the way in almost every victory this season, and when it plays well, it dominates for long stretches.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Brett Maher kicked four field goals and while field goals aren't what an offense wants to produce that often, it's good to know that Maher can be called upon to do the job. His 12 points would have been enough for the Saints to win Sunday, just like his nine were enough in the win over Tampa Bay. But he did miss an extra-point attempt, and whatever is the cause of that season-long bugaboo, it's a concern that should have been eliminated by now. Otherwise, the punting was on point (three of Blake Gillikin's five punts were downed inside the 20) and even though Deonte Harty didn't break loose on a punt return (four returns for eight yards), he wisely ran up to field a pair of punts to preserve field position. Harris also was aggressive on kickoff returns, something that may prove beneficial against Atlanta next Sunday.

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