The first-place New Orleans Saints (9-3) took apart Carolina the big-boy way in a 31-21 victory Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints ran the ball spectacularly (148 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries) against a team that only was allowing 83.2 rushing yards per game entering Sunday. They threw it efficiently (Drew Brees completed 25 of 34 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown). They forced a turnover on special teams (courtesy of safety Chris Banjo's forced fumble). And they locked down defensively, surrendering just 279 yards, including 75 on Carolina's first drive. New Orleans has earned its spot atop the NFC South Division, and guaranteed its first winning season since 2013. All three phases showed up Sunday.
OFFENSE: The Saints offense sublimely was balanced against the Panthers, no small feat considering what Carolina's defense can do to an opposing offense. The Saints totaled 400 yards and 31 points, rolled to a time of possession advantage of 33:21-26:39 and after converting just one of their first four third-down attempts, cashed in on five of their final 11 chances on third down. Brees continues to not have to carry the unit because the offensive line and backs simply are grinding up opponents. Mark Ingram II ran 14 times for 85 yards and a touchdown, including a 72-yard sprint that was the second-longest of his career and showcased his open-field ability. And Alvin Kamara – well, there's not much more that can be said to describe how sensational the Saints rookie running back has been, and continues to be. He ran for 60 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, and caught five passes for 66 yards. It's the sixth time in the last nine games that he has surpassed 100 yards of total offense, and his team-leading 11 touchdowns is two shy of tying the Saints' rookie record of 13, set by George Rogers in 1981. Also, Kamara has scored a touchdown in six consecutive games, a rookie record and a feat matched by just three other players in franchise history. New Orleans ran 64 plays (34 pass attempts, 28 runs and two sacks) and when it has been that balanced this season, it usually has helped produce a win. Note: Bookmark the Saints' opening drive of the game, when they went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2 and Kamara scored on a run. That was a "we-came-to-win" call.
DEFENSE: Just when you thought the Saints were in for a long day defensively, they slipped Carolina into a vice grip. Carolina had a 75-yard touchdown drive on its first possession (eight yards were gifted via penalty). It had just 204 yards the rest of the day as the Saints did a masterful job of forcing quarterback Cam Newton to stay in the pocket, and managed to shut the door on third and fourth downs (Carolina was 3 of 10 on third down, 0 of 2 on fourth). Newton popped free late for a 32-yard run, but the Saints were disciplined with the rush, judicious with the blitz and held Newton and the Panthers to 183 passing yards on 27 attempts. Second-year cornerback Ken Crawley is one of the most improved players in the league; after a rocky first year, he's a dependable starter who's capable of producing big plays. Linebacker A.J. Klein (five tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit) had a nice day against his former team. The unit was missing cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams, and still it was stingy.
SPECIAL TEAMS: If necessity is the mother of invention, I guess injury is the father of creativity in the NFL. Because of injuries and depth issues on special teams, the Saints used No. 3 quarterback Taysom Hill on several units. Despite only having practiced with the unit last week, Hill had a couple of tackles on kickoff returns and came close to blocking a punt. And safety Chris Banjo forced a fumble on a punt return in the fourth quarter (Craig Robertson recovered for the Saints) to help protect a 28-14 lead (it led to a 31-yard field goal). Cover teams were good all day and while return teams did nothing of significance, they really didn't need to. Banner day, even if you factor in a 38-yard missed field goal by Wil Lutz.