The New Orleans Saints' 31-26 victory over Carolina on Sunday in their NFC Wild Card playoff game was every bit as exhilarating as the score suggests, and then some. New Orleans (12-5) required every bit of juice it could squeeze from the 73,186 fans inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to post its third victory over the Panthers this season, and to advance to a divisional round matchup against the Vikings in Minneapolis. It wasn't all smooth, but it was enough for the win.
OFFENSE:** The Panthers pretty much made the Saints one-dimensional. The problem was, that one dimension is directed by a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Quarterback Drew Brees shredded the Panthers – 23 of 33 for 376 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception. Two receivers had 100-yard days (Michael Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards and Ted Ginn Jr. caught four for 115, and had an 80-yard touchdown) and two more had larger impacts than the numbers suggested – tight end Josh Hill caught three passes for 49 yards and a score, and Brandon Coleman caught four for 44 yards. Brees and the Saints' offense scored on four consecutive possessions (three touchdowns and a field goal), and did so with minimal input from the running game (22 carries for 41 yards, total, but a pair of short touchdown runs from fullback Zach Line and running back Alvin Kamara). The downside was that the Saints lost another offensive lineman; left guard Andrus Peat was carted off in the second quarter with a reported shin injury, so the hits just keep on coming to that unit. Senio Kelemete, who essentially is a starter (he started six games at left guard during the regular season, and played the position in four more games), will take over. On a personal note: I'm not going to worry anymore about the Saints' third-down conversion percentage. They were 2 of 8 against the Panthers, and they only were 37.6 percent during a regular season in which they won 11 games. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but they make it work by getting the job done on first and second downs. They had 410 yards and 21 first downs Sunday, so they're doing something right.
DEFENSE:** A lot of bending, a little breaking, but not enough of either to walk away with a loss. Carolina's first four scores all were field goals – the Panthers' Graham Gano also missed a 25-yarder – because New Orleans did an excellent job of keeping Carolina out of the end zone. Gano made three chip shots (27-, 39- and 29-yarders) because the Saints were able to stiffen when they needed to stiffen. Carolina was turned away on third-and-6 from the Saints' 9, on third-and-7 from the Saints' 24 and on third-and-goal from the Saints' 4. That's quality work. Cam Newton (24 of 40 for 349 yards and two touchdowns) had very nice numbers for Carolina, but the Saints sacked him four times (one each by Vonn Bell, Tyeler Davison, Cam Jordan and Jonathan Freeny) and on two of the final three plays on defense, Jordan forced an intentional grounding (a 13-yard penalty) and Bell came up with a 17-yard sack. The unit produced the plays when it needed them most.
SPECIAL TEAMS: There were a couple of penalties committed on returns to smudge the resume, but otherwise, it was a solid game. Coverage was good when needed (Justin Hardee and Zach Wood had tackles on punt returns, Hardee's for no gain and Wood's after a 12-yard return) and Wil Lutz didn't allow any kickoff returns because of six touchbacks. Nothing else needs to be said about Thomas Morstead (four punts, 43-yard net, one downed inside the 20). Nothing special happened in the return game for the Saints, either, but Lutz did kick a 57-yard field goal in the third quarter, tying his career-best effort and tied for the second-longest in NFL postseason history.
Check out the playoff action as the Saints host the Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.