For a while there, it looked like the New Orleans Saints were on their way to routing the division rival Carolina Panthers. Timely defensive stops and monster touchdowns from the Panthers' two best offensive playmakers kept them in the game right to the end, though, only for the team to see its hope snuffed out by an intentional grounding penalty and then a sack. And so the Saints came away with a 31-26 win, and they move on to the next round.
But it wasn't necessarily that simple. Though the Saints had a double-digit lead for much of the game's running time, they actually didn't outplay the Panthers by that much early on. In the first half, the Panthers had more first downs than the Saints and had been better at converting on third downs as well. The problem was mistakes.
Panthers 13 firsts, Saints 12.— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) January 7, 2018
Panthers 5/10 3rd down, Saints 0/2.
Panthers 190 yards, Saints 244.
Panthers 0/2 red zone, Saints 2/2.
The Panthers had the game's first scoring opportunity, but Kaelin Clay dropped a perfectly-placed throw from Cam Newton in the corner of the end zone. On the next snap, Graham Gano -- the NFL's most accurate kicker during 2017 -- missed his second field goal of the season.
A few plays later, Drew Brees hit Ted Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown jaunt, and the Saints were off to the races. They scored touchdowns on each of their next two drives, with Michael Thomas doing much of the heavy lifting before less-heralded players found themselves in the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Panthers just kept kicking field goals. Prior to Greg Olsen scoring the team's first touchdown of the game, the Panthers made four trips inside the Saints' 25-yard line and settled for a field-goal attempt each time. In other words, while the Saints scored 14 points on two red-zone trips in the first half, the Panthers scored nine points on four red zone trips in the first 2 1/2 quarters. Considering the Saints won this game by five, that seems like a pretty important differential.
The Panthers kept things interesting in the second half, mostly because Olsen and then McCaffrey came up with huge plays. They even had a shot to win at the end, as they got the ball back one last time after Sean Payton elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 near midfield on the first play after the two-minute warning. Brees' pass was picked, though, and the Panthers marched down the field to the New Orleans 21.
After Cam threw the ball away on first down when nobody sprung open, Cam Jordan burst through the line and forced him into the aforementioned intentional grounding call on the next play. After a heave to Devin Funchess down the sideline, Vonn Bell and Jordan broke through the line once again and ended the Panthers' comeback hopes. It was a familiar fate for Carolina, given that the team trailed at halftime.
Here are a few more things to know about New Orleans' 31-26 win.
Saints go 3-0 vs. Panthers
The Saints became the 14th team to go 3-0 against the same opponent in one season. The last team to do it was the 2009 Dallas Cowboys, who beat the Eagles three times before losing to the Vikings on the road in the next round. (Keep that in mind for when you read below about who the Saints will play next week.)
Here's the full list of teams the Saints joined:
- 2009 Dallas Cowboys over Philadelphia Eagles
- 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers over Baltimore Ravens
- 2004 St. Louis Rams over Seattle Seahawks
- 2002 Pittsburgh Steelers over Cleveland Browns
- 2000 New York Giants over Philadelphia Eagles
- 1999 Tennessee Titans over Jacksonville Jaguars
- 1997 Green Bay Packers over Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 1997 New England Patriots over Miami Dolphins
- 1994 Pittsburgh Steelers over Cleveland Browns
- 1993 Los Angeles Raiders over Denver Broncos
- 1991 Kansas City Chiefs over Los Angeles Raiders
- 1986 New York Giants over Washington Redskins
- 1982 Miami Dolphins over New York Jets (strike year)
Pretty incredible feat.
With the Panthers hyper-focused on shutting down the New Orleans running game, the Saints wound up getting contributions from unexpected -- or at least, less-heralded -- places.
Ted Ginn played a significant role in the Saints' early-season offense, but he slowed down over the last few weeks of the year. He had 42 catches for 614 yards and three touchdowns through Week 12, then had 11 for 176 and one score over his final four games. (He missed one game due to injury.) He did not take long to make his presence felt on Sunday, though.
After New Orleans went three-and-out on its first two drives of the game, Ginn helped Drew Brees take advantage of a missed field goal by Graham Gano, beating the Carolina defense downfield for an 80-yard score. It was the longest play of the year for both the Saints offense and the Panthers defense.
Later in the half, Josh Hill caught his first postseason touchdown pass. He had two catches for 34 yards in the first half, eclipsing his career playoff receiving yardage total prior to Sunday.
After the game, Payton let the media know just how excited he was to call that Hill play.
Sean Payton said the Josh Hill TD play had "10 stars" on the call sheet.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) January 8, 2018
And because the Saints are the Saints, we also got a fullback touchdown. Zach Line ran it in from one yard out late in the second quarter, scoring a touchdown for just the third time in 49 regular season and postseason games combined.
RBs get bottled up but Panthers can't stop Thomas
Let's talk about those Saints running backs for a second. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara averaged approximately 193 total yards per game combined this season. They also scored 26 total touchdowns. They were the best and most efficient running back tandem in recent memory.
On Sunday: not so much. Carolina almost completely shut them down. Ingram had nine carries for 22 yards. Kamara had 10 carries for 23 yards. Ingram had one catch for 13 yards. Kamara had one catch for 10 yards. Combined: 68 yards on 21 touches.
Alas, the Panthers still had no answer for Michael Thomas, who had dominated them in the first two matchups as well. Thomas went for seven catches, 87 yards and a score in the first game. He had five catches for 70 yards and a score in the second game. He didn't score in this one, but he did dominate everyone in front of him with eight catches for 131 yards.
He was unstoppable.
DPOY candidate dominates
Cameron Jordan is one of the inner-circle candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, and on Sunday, he showed why. Jordan, who had 13 sacks, 12 passes defenses, two forced fumbles, and 74 pressures during the regular season, stepped up in a big way during the Saints' playoff opener.
He finished the game with three tackles (one for loss), a sack, two passes defensed, two additional hits on Cam Newton, and an additional hurry of the opposing quarterback as well.
The New Orleans defense buckled a bit in the second half after allowing only nine points in the first, but they came up huge when the Saints needed it the most. On the Panthers' last-ditch drive, New Orleans forced an intentional grounding on second down and then sacked Newton to end the game.
Speaking of Cam, he was involved in what is likely to be one of the most controversial plays of the weekend. With just about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, Newton was sacked by David Onyemata in what was an absolute monster hit.
He later stumbled to the sideline and, while pointing to his head, eventually had to go to the ground. This, one would think, is where the concussion protocol kicks in. And sure enough, Cam went into the blue sideline tent where players are evaluated for injuries.
Newton is in the sideline tent and I imagine he is being evaluated for a concussion but nothing official on that. We will hear more shortly.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 8, 2018
One issue here: the recently-revised concussion protocol policy requires players to be taken to the locker room for evaluated if they stumble or fall to the ground when trying to stand, which is exactly what happened to Cam.
Revised NFL concussion policy: "Require a locker room concussion evaluation for all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand)."— Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) January 8, 2018
Of course, that did not happen. The Panthers simply evaluated Cam for a concussion on the sideline, cleared him, and then let him return to the game.
Cam Newton has been evaluated for a concussion and cleared.— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 8, 2018
Sounds like they'll be hearing from the commissioner's office this week.
The first two Panthers-Saints games this year both went New Orleans' way, but neither of them featured star Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. We wrote before the rematch that if Carolina was going to figure out a way to steal a win on the road,.
Carolina didn't end up getting that win, but Olsen sure did look like a star. He had arguably his best game of the season, coming away with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown that pulled the Panthers within one score in the fourth quarter. He also had big catches on third down throughout the game.
It was the second 100-yard receiving game in Olsen's playoff career, putting him on a list with only two other Panthers players.
Greg Olsen: 2nd career 100-yard receiving game in the postseason.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 8, 2018
He joins Steve Smith (3) and Muhsin Muhammad (2) as Panthers with multiple 100-yard receiving games in the postseason
He was one of the only Panthers to really get much going offensively, as Christian McCaffrey was the only other player to make any big plays until Devin Funchess and Kaelin Clay made timely catches on the team's last-ditch drive.
Panthers get no pressure
Drew Brees was the least-pressured quarterback in the NFL during the regular season. He was sacked, hit, or hurried on only 22.6 percent of dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Like most passers, Brees is considerably less effective when under pressure.
When throwing from a clean pocket, Brees completed 77.4 percent of his passes, averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, and threw 23 touchdowns and five interceptions. When under pressure, his completion rate dropped to 54.4 percent, his average yards per attempt dropped to 6.9, and he was picked three times while not throwing a single touchdown.
So it's safe to say that getting pressure on Brees was important for the Panthers in this one. But it didn't happen. Brees was sacked, hit, or hurried on just eight of 34 dropbacks. That's a 23.5 percent rate that was basically equivalent to where he was during the regular season. And he tore the Panthers apart when throwing from a clean pocket, completing 21 of 26 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns on those plays.
A new record
Graham Gano and Wil Lutz are not necessarily the first guys that come to mind when it comes to the Panthers and Saints, but on Sunday they combined to do something no two kickers had ever done during the Super Bowl era.
This is the first playoff game in the Super Bowl era in which kickers from both teams made a field goal of 55+ yards— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 7, 2018
Gano's 58-yarder was the longest field goal in Panthers history.
Lutz's 57-yarder tied a career-long.
Season over for Peat?
Early in the second quarter, Saints guard Andrus Peat was carted off the field with what appeared to be a very serious lower-leg injury. Peat got his foot pinned to the ground while a Panthers defender fell on it, and he had to have his leg stabilized in an air cast before being removed from the field.
Not a good sign. The cart is coming out on the field for Andrus Peat.— Herbie Teope (@HerbieTeope) January 7, 2018
It was later reported by several outlets that Peat suffered a broken fibula. His season is almost certainly over if that's the case.
New Orleans dealt with injuries along the offensive line all season and was prepared with Senio Kelemete ready to slide into Peat's spot along the line, but Peat had an excellent season and his absence could be felt in future rounds.
The Carolina Panthers' season is over. The No. 5 seed in the NFC, they'll have the No. 24 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Carolina will presumably want to get Cam Newton some more weapons to stretch the field, something they had trouble with throughout the season.
The No. 4-seeded Saints will move on to the divisional round of the playoffs, where they'll travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings. (The No. 6 seed Falcons beat the Rams on Saturday, so they play the highest-seeded team remaining, which is the Eagles.) New Orleans opened up the 2017 season on the road in Minnesota, losing 29-19 in a game where their defense was absolutely lit up by Sam Bradford. Much has changed for both teams since then, but it's all circling back around to where it began.
If you still want to read more from Sunday's game, you can scroll through our live blog below.