Charlotte, N.C. – The New Orleans Saints strengthened their grip on the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a hard-fought 12-9 win over division rival Carolina on Monday night at Bank of America Stadium.
The Saints are 12-2 with two regular-season games to play: Sunday vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Dec. 30 at the Dome vs. the Panthers (6-8). The Saints can clinch a top two seed with a win or a loss by the Chicago Bears (10-4) and their path to the top seed looks good as well. The Los Angeles Rams (11-3) are a game behind the Saints but if the teams finish with the same record the Saints will get the higher seed based on their earlier win over the Rams this season.
It looked the like Saints were going to pull away late from Carolina but the Panthers got another chance at winning when receiver Tommylee Lewis fumbled out of the end zone on an end-around from the 5-yard line with 1:44 to play. There was a flag on the play, but it was holding on New Orleans. While that penalty wasn't accepted, the Saints were penalized nine times for 80 yards. The lost fumble ended a Saints possession that lasted seven minutes. New Orleans possessed the ball for 35 minutes and nine seconds.
The Saints defense rose up again and stopped the Panthers on fourth down, preserving the win.
While the Saints managed to dig out the win, for the third consecutive game the offense struggled, especially in the first half. Quarterback Drew Brees threw an interception in his fourth consecutive game and was just 23 for 35 for 203 yards, including having a pass picked off on a 2-point conversion returned by Donte Jackson for two Carolina points. Penalties, including misalignments and false starts, were an issue and pass protection became a bit shaky when center Max Unger was forced out of the game as the Saints gave up two sacks and several hits on Brees. The Saints finished the game with Andrus Peat at right tackle, rookie Will Clapp at right guard and Cameron Tom at center.
Running back Mark Ingram was one of the most effective offensive players, rushing for 63 yards on 12 carries, while running mate Alvin Kamara added 67 yards rushing and the lone touchdown, a 16-yard scamper in the fourth quarter.
The defense played another stellar game, forcing two turnovers and sacking Carolina quarterback Cam Newton four times. After allowing a 50-yard touchdown on a halfback pass on the Panthers' first possession the Saints defense shut them down the rest of the way. Newton finished 16 of 29 for 131 yards with one interception, an end zone grab at the end of the first half by Saints cornerback Eli Apple. Safety Vonn Bell forced a D.J. Moore fumble to end another scoring threat. That turnover turned into six points when Kamara raced in around the right side for a 16-yard touchdown and the Saints' first lead.
The Saints had four sacks – one each by linebacker Demario Davis, defensive end Alex Okafor, defensive tackle David Onyemata and Bell.
Kicker Wil Lutz was a perfect 2 for 2 on field goals, running his streak of consecutive field goals made to 25, tying Morten Andersen's franchise record.
The loss was Carolina's sixth consecutive defeat.
Key Saints stat leaders
Drew Brees, 23 of 35 for 203 yards with one interception,
Mark Ingram, 12 carries for 63 yards
Alvin Kamara, 14 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown
Michael Thomas, seven catches for 49 yards