When a game develops as did the New Orleans Saints' 34-31 victory over Carolina on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with as many twists and turns and peaks and valleys as were navigated, you're bound to have a slew of players who wielded significant influence.
The Saints (9-2) widened their lead in the NFC South to four games over the Panthers (5-6) and inched closer to a third consecutive division championship; the team never before had won two straight before last year. And while asserting control, New Orleans didn't lack for big plays made by key players.
OFFENSE: The easy call here would be quarterback Drew Brees, Father of Game-Winning Drives (not as eye-catching as Mother of Dragons, but you get where I'm coming from). Brees (30 of 39 for 311 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception) directed his 41st game-winning drive since joining New Orleans in 2006 – an 11-play, 65-yarder that culminated in Wil Lutz's 33-yard field goal as time expired. Almost as easy would be tight end Jared Cook (six catches for 99 yards and a touchdown), who is beginning to exert influence on the offense. We're getting a full understanding of how impactful he can be. But guard Patrick Omameh came off the bench, stepped in at left tackle for Terron Armstead midway through the first quarter, and the Saints offense didn't noticeably skip a beat because of the change. That means Omameh came in for an All-Pro, and held up even though he'd probably played more special teams snaps than he'd played on offense this season entering Sunday. Offensive line coach Dan Roushar does a phenomenal job with the players he has, and those players always seem to step up when needed.
DEFENSE: Linebacker Demario Davis doesn't have many bad days. He makes tackle after tackle, play after play, in traffic or in space. On Sunday, that meant a team-high 11 tackles and a sack on third down (unfortunately, it didn't get the defense off the field; Cam Jordan's post-sack personal foul gave the Panthers a first down). It also included a pass defensed and a quarterback hit for Davis, whose level of play seems to continue rising as the season progresses. When he tackles opponents, they stay tackled.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The easy call here would be Lutz. The 33-yarder was his second game-winner this season with time expiring and he now has made seven straight field goals, after an uneven stretch in which he missed three of six. But for Sunday, we'll go with the Saints' punt-team gunners, Justin Hardee Sr. and J.T. Gray, because they combined to give New Orleans a bonus possession that resulted in a touchdown. And that touchdown came in handy at the end. Thomas Morstead's 51-yard punt in the first quarter couldn't be fielded by Carolina because Hardee was pushing safety Rashaan Gaulden into punt returner DJ Moore. And while Hardee was moving Gaulden, the football bounced and brushed against his right calf. Gray recovered the muff at the Carolina 27 – the Saints had to challenge on the play; officials originally ruled that the Panthers didn't touch the ball – and four plays later, Brees threw his first touchdown pass of the day, a 13-yarder to Tre'Quan Smith, to give New Orleans a 14-0 lead.
Check out the NFC South division action between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers in Week 12 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.