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John DeShazier's Saints helmet stickers from Panthers game

There were enough twists and turns on Sunday inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to leave stomachs in knots. The New Orleans Saints’ 31-26 victory over Carolina in their NFC Wild Card game, a victory that vaults New Orleans into a divisional playoff game against Minnesota in Minneapolis next Sunday at 3:40 p.m., didn’t lack for standout performances.

OFFENSE: Totally, it would be inaccurate – insulting, even – to question whether Drew Brees still has “it.” Clearly, “it” never has left him. The Panthers found out the hard way in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Carolina took away the running game that has given the Saints so much balance this season, limiting New Orleans to 41 yards on 22 carries (and a couple of short touchdowns, from 1 and 2 yards out), and dared Brees to win the game. He obliged. Brees chopped Carolina to the tune of 23 completions in 33 attempts, for 376 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception (side note: the pick actually was better than turning over the ball on downs, because it forced Carolina into a longer drive for its potential game-winning touchdown). Brees only had one game in the regular season in which he topped 376 yards (385, against Washington) and the 300-yard passing day broke a streak of six straight games in which he hadn’t topped 281 yards. Just because he hadn’t, didn’t mean he couldn’t. His 80-yard touchdown pass to in the first quarter was a thing of beauty, but so, too, was his rolling-right, 46-yarder to Michael Thomas and his 16-yard, back-shoulder dime to Thomas, both in the fourth quarter. Maybe the Panthers thought they sensed some slippage. Maybe that’ll be the last time that happens for a while.

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DEFENSE:** We didn’t hear Marshon Lattimore’s name called much on Sunday, because the rookie cornerback wasn’t to be trifled with. Two tackles and two passes defensed is such an understatement of what he did, it’s laughable. But defensive end Cam Jordan is a marvel. He was named first-team All-Pro last week for the first time, and went about showing the nation why he earned the honor on Sunday. He had a sack for minus-9 yards – find a replay; it’s incredible that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn’t fumble after the contact – a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and two passes defensed (yep, two more batted down passes). Too, he drew a holding penalty and in the fourth quarter, with Carolina facing second-and-10 from the Saints’ 21-yard line and trailing 31-26 with 41 seconds left, his pressure on Newton resulted in an intentional grounding penalty and a loss of 13 yards. Actually, it would’ve been better for the Panthers if Jordan had been awarded the sack that he probably had earned (he had Newton wrapped up), because the penalty also carried a 10-second runoff. And when safety Vonn Bell sacked Newton on fourth down, Jordan was on Bell’s back, helping drive Newton to the ground. There’s a reason that the guy should receive high consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Nothing major happened in the return game, and the cover teams were fantastic when called upon; Justin Hardee and Zach Wood made nice tackles on punt returns. But, though Wil Lutz wasn’t called upon to kick a game-winner, his 57-yard field goal in the third quarter still was significant. In addition to padding the Saints’ lead to 24-12, the kick tied for the longest of his career and was the second-longest field goal in NFL playoff history. Lutz tied a franchise record with 31 field goals this season, and didn’t miss a beat in his first playoff game. Including regular season, he has made five of six attempts from 50-plus yards.

Saints fans show their supports against the Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

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