The Saints did not get the No. 1 seed, by they did manage to sew up the No. 2 seed for the playoffs after posting a 33-7 win over the Panthers. New Orleans (12-4) will host Chicago (8-8) next weekend in the wild card round.
Drew Brees led the way with three touchdown passes, while the Saints' ball-hawking secondary recorded a season-high five interceptions. The Saints won despite not having the services of running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, who were out after being placed on the team's COVID-19 list. Ty Montgomery more than picked up the slack, rushing for 105 yards on 18 carries.
Brees got things going early, as he connected with Jared Cook on an 18-yard strike on the Saints' first offensive possession. On their second possession, the Panthers tied things up on Rodney Smith's one-yard touchdown. The score was set up by Teddy Bridgewater's completions of 14 yards to D.J. Moore and 25 yards to Curtis Samuel.
The Panthers were threatening to take the lead before Malcolm Jenkins picked off Bridgewater's pass in the end zone with 10:37 left until halftime. New Orleans parlayed the pick into an eight-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Emmanuel Sanders. After Malcolm Brown stuffed Samuel for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-one, Brees' seven consecutive completions set up Will Lutz's 33-yard field goal.
Following Lutz's second field goal to start the second half, Bridgewater was picked off in the end zone again, this time by defensive back Grant Haley. On the Panthers' next possession, P.J. Walker, in for Bridgewater, was picked off by cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The pick set up Taysom Hill's eighth rushing touchdown of the season, a three-yard run with 4:56 left in the third quarter.
The Saints started the fourth quarter with Brees' 11-yard touchdown pass to Austin Carr. They ended the game with two more interceptions, courtesy of safety P.J. Williams and cornerback Ken Crawley.
Here's a closer look at how the Saints were able to breeze past the Panthers.
Why the Saints won
Despite not having Kamara or Murray, the Saints still enjoyed perfect offensive balance. While Brees completed 22 passes, the Saints rushed for 156 yards on 30 carries. The Saints secondary' also played a key crucial role in the game. The league's fifth-best pass defense entering the game, New Orleans held the Panthers to just 18 of 37 passing.
Why the Panthers lost
Bridgewater's two end zone picks helped turn a tight game into a runaway. Carolina also didn't help themselves by going just 1 of 9 on third down. Defensively, the Panthers had no answer for Brees, who completed passes to nine different receivers. Brees received sturdy protection for most of the game after getting hit several times during the game's first 20 minutes. The Panthers did receive solid performances by Samuel (seven catches, 118 yards), and Moore (five catches, 101 yards).
Trailing 19-9 in the third quarter, the Panthers were threatening to score after Bridgewater hit Moore for a 44-yard completion. Bridgewater was picked off in the end by Bailey on the very next play. The Saints then picked off Walker on the Panthers' next possession, setting up Hill's game-clinching touchdown run.
Play of the game
With the score tied, Sanders' touchdown pass gave New Orleans the lead for good. Sanders later received a $500,000 pay bump after surpassing 60 receptions for the season.
"I'm not gonna talk about COVID tonight. I'm gonna talk about the game we just played." -- Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked about his team's COVID-19 situation, specifically at it relates to Kamara and Murray
The Saints will host the Bears next weekend in the NFC wild card round. New Orleans needed overtime to beat the Bears back in Week 8, as Kamara led the way with 163 all-purpose yards. The Panthers will enter the offseason, where they will have a top-10 pick in the 2021 draft. Carolina may be in the market for a quarterback, as they may be in a position to draft either BYU quarterback Zach Wilson or Alabama's Mac Jones.