Panthers vs. Saints highlights, takeaways: Saints gut out ugly game, now one win away from No. 1 seed

It wasn't pretty, but wins that move you one step closer to capturing the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs don't necessarily have to be. The New Orleans Saints struggled badly for much of the game against the division rival Carolina Panthers, but big plays at opportune times ultimately allowed them to come away with a victory -- even if it was more difficult than it arguably should have been. 

The principal players for the New Orleans offense were held down for much of the night, with Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram posting rather pedestrian lines. Thomas eventually hauled in seven passes for 49 yards, but he was not his usual self. Kamara kept getting tripped up just before he could break into the open field, while Ingram essentially disappeared for much of the second half after running well early on. 

Tre'Quan Smith had a drop. Taysom Hill did too. TommyLee Lewis had a fumble. Drew Brees was under an uncharacteristic amount of pressure, did not create his typical big plays, and was picked off on a very bad throw. On another night, or against another team, the Saints might have lost for the second time in three weeks. But on this night, they played the Panthers, and the Panthers' offense just didn't have it. 

It took a 50-yard trick play pass from Christian McCaffrey for the Panthers to muster their only offensive score of the night, and without that play, the Panthers gained only 197 yards on 56 plays -- an average of just 3.5 per play. The New Orleans defense caused some problems for Carolina, slowing down McCaffrey in the run game and daring Cam Newton to beat them on throws downfield and to the outside with his injured shoulder. He couldn't do it. 

And yet, the Panthers still held a 9-7 lead into the fourth quarter. And they were driving and looking to extend that lead. And that's when the Saints turned things around. Vonn Bell made the biggest play of the night, the Saints finally strung together enough plays to get into scoring position, and Alvin Kamara found a way to hit pay-dirt. 

It was not entirely smooth sailing from there, but they were able to hang on. And that's ultimately what matters, because now they have a few weeks to figure things out. And if they can get one more win in the next two weeks, they'll have the benefit of being able to play every game the rest of the way in their home stadium. 

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Here are a few more things to know about New Orleans' 12-9 victory... 

Vonn Bell comes up big

The Saints apparently love Ohio State defensive backs. They drafted Marshon Lattimore at No. 11 overall in 2017, and saw him go on to have a fantastic season during which he won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Earlier this season, they traded for Eli Apple, who the Giants had drafted out of Ohio State a couple years back. 

Less heralded out of Ohio State is safety Vonn Bell, whom the Saints picked up in the second round of the 2016 draft. And Bell had himself a nice evening. His biggest play of the game was this one, where he knocked the ball out of D.J. Moore's hands, turning a big gain on a misdirection play into a fumble that led to the Saints retaking the lead on the ensuing drive. 

But that's not all Bell did. He had a couple third-down pass breakups, and he came up with a huge third-down sack of Cam Newton midway through the fourth quarter, forcing the Panthers to punt when they'd been mounting a nice-looking drive shortly after the Saints had taken a lead. 

Christian McCaffrey really can do everything

Here's what we wrote about McCaffrey in our game preview on Thursday morning: 

Pigeonholed last year as a pure pass-catching back and speed runner, McCaffrey averaged just 12.3 touches per game. Those touches were often far too obvious, as the Panthers liked to have Jonathan Stewart on the field a bunch in order to provide a power, downhill element in the running game. McCaffrey played just south of 70 percent of the snaps, but he rarely touched the ball in the red zone (12 rushes, 11 receptions) and was not given enough opportunities to establish himself as the kind of versatile runner who can make plays everywhere, and not just to the edges of the formation. 

This year has been far different. McCaffrey's average is up to 20.4 touches per game, and he has been on the field for 97.5 percent of Carolina's offensive snaps. And McCaffrey's not just gotten more volume. He's also been far more efficient and explosive than he was a year ago. Among the 42 players with 100-plus carries this season, McCaffrey ranks eighth in both yards per carry and Football Outsiders' Success Rate. Last year, he ranked 34th out of 47 in yards per carry and 22nd in Success Rate. Additionally, McCaffrey has 27 plays of 15-plus yards this season (14 catches, 13 runs), compared to just 18 such plays a year ago. That's an additional 15-yard play per game. 

All he did in this one was come out and prove he can do more than just run and more than just catch and more than just create big plays. McCaffrey finished the evening with 15 carries for 53 yards, eight catches for an additional 67 yards ... and a 50-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Manhertz that opened the game's scoring late in the first quarter.

That big gain was created by an excellent fake from Manhertz, who blocked down into the line of scrimmage and got safety Marcus Williams to step up, which opened the throwing lane for McCaffrey over the top. This was the first pass the second-year back has thrown in his NFL career, but he was actually completed two passes (both touchdowns) during his time at Stanford. 

It was fitting that McCaffrey showed off that he could do even more than we'd previously imagined on the same night that he set a franchise record for yards from scrimmage in a single season, breaking the mark previously held by DeAngelo Williams, who had 1,636 yards from scrimmage back in 2008.

McCaffrey is now at 1,747 yards from scrimmage, and he's still got two games to go. He got off to a muted start as a rookie, even with his touch diversity and big-play ability, but this year he's shown that he is the total package running back the Panthers envisioned when they made him a top-10 pick. 

Did Drew Brees' MVP hopes go up in smoke?

Just a few weeks ago, Drew Brees was the heavy favorite to take home the Associated Press MVP award. Now, he seems like something of a long shot, even with the Saints on track to take home the No. 1 seed in the NFC. That's kind of what happens when you have subpar performances on national TV twice in three weeks while your primary competition for the award (Patrick Mahomes) keeps racking up both numbers and victories. 

Getting slowed by the Cowboys' athletic and versatile defense is one thing, but coming up this empty against a Panthers defense that entered the game ranked 26th in opponent's yards per attempt, 28th in opponent's passer rating, and 29th in pass defense DVOA is quite another -- even if they are a division rival. Brees finished this game just 23 of 35 for 203 yards, no touchdowns, and a pick. 

Take a look at his splits from the first 11 games of the year compared to the past three: 

Brees First 11 Last 3
Comp 272 65
Att 356 94
Comp % 76.4% 69.1%
Yds 3135 531
YPA 8.81 5.65
TD 29 2
TD % 8.15% 2.13%
INT  2 3
INT % 0.56% 3.19%
QB Rtg 127.3 77.0

With how Mahomes has been playing, it does kind of look like Brees might come up short in the MVP voting once again, even in a season where his team seems likely to capture the No. 1 seed and he was having arguably his best year ever right up until a few weeks ago. 

Missed opportunities

You can't say the Panthers didn't get their chances. The Saints essentially tried to give the Panthers this game for much of its running time, but they ultimately couldn't take advantage when opportunities presented themselves. 

Cam Newton continued to struggle, which he's done since injuring his shoulder several weeks back. But it wasn't just his physical performance that was the issue. Check out this throw, and what a bad decision it was to make it to such a well-covered receiver. 

The Panthers had a roughing-the-kicker call and a pass interference among their four costly penalties, and on perhaps the biggest play of the game, D.J. Moore failed to secure the ball as he motored through the New Orleans secondary, which allowed Vonn Bell to strip him from behind and force a fumble. 

Carolina got zero points out of its only red-zone opportunity, averaged only 4.4 yards per play, and took four sacks. With the exception of the trick play where McCaffrey hit on a 50-yard touchdown pass, the Panthers just didn't do much of anything all night. They couldn't even muster a game-tying field goal drive after the Saints had a silly turnover while trying to seal the game at the end. The defense was great, but just couldn't get it done entirely on its own. Not that they didn't try ... 

Pick-Two!

We got to see quite the unusual play in this one: the pick-two! After the Saints scored a touchdown to take a 12-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, they decided to go for two in order to extend the lead to seven points rather than six. Donte Jackson had other plans, picking off Drew Brees and taking it allllllll the way back to the house, resulting in two points for the Panthers and cutting the lead to 12-9. 

Jackson, as you may or may not have been able to tell from that video, is ridiculously fast. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds at the NFL combine, and he ran track his whole life, according to Panthers beat writer Jourdan Rodrigue, who spoke to Jackson's strength coach about the rookie corner's speed. 

This particular play was a big one for Jackson, who committed a pass interference earlier in the drive that gave the Saints a shot to extend things and eventually march down the field for the go-ahead score. It also came against his hometown team, which is nice for him.

Pretty cool stuff.

Suddenly the Saints have O-Line issues

The Saints, who have had one of the best offensive lines in the league for the better part of the past two seasons, are suddenly having some major issues up front. Star left tackle Terron Armstead has now missed the past five games with a pectoral injury, but he's no longer the only member of the offensive line with an injury. 

Center Max Unger, who has played 60 of 61 possible games since the Saints acquired him in a trade for Jimmy Graham four years ago, sustained a concussion during the first half of this game. He did not return, and he now has a short week to recover before the Saints face the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday. 

The Saints did a whole bunch of shuffling along the line in response to these injuries, moving Andrus Peat to tackle and bringing Will Clapp and Tom Cameron into the game. If they have to go with this makeshift look next week and beyond, that could affect their playoff chances. 

Luke Kuechly is amazing

This dude might be a wizard. 

That's it. I just wanted to note how damn good he is before we finished out this story. 

What's next?

The Saints just barely hung on against a divisional opponent for a second-consecutive week, and they've now run their record to 12-2. They're still in first place in the NFC and they hold the tiebreaker over the Rams, who are one game back in the standings. They've got the Steelers on the schedule next week before the Panthers visit the Superdome for the final game of the season. Carolina is now 6-8, having lost six straight after starting the season 6-2. They're all but eliminated from the playoff conversation and will have to win out against the Falcons and Saints while also getting some help elsewhere in order to make it to the postseason. 

Feel free to check out our live blog of the festivities below.

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