Slye: “I feel terrible. We needed a win. I have a huge hand in this loss.”— Max Henson (@PanthersMax) November 24, 2019
The NFC South is the New Orleans Saints' to lose, but the Carolina Panthers didn't make it easy on their rivals Sunday.
Carolina (5-5) entered as the inferior foe in this weekend's divisional clash, having dropped two straight amid a slew of Kyle Allen turnovers and even more shoddy run defense. But rivalry games, especially those with potential playoff implications, tend to bring with them surprises, and the Panthers pushed the Saints to the finish line in Week 12 -- before Sean Payton's oh-so-smooth offense drove down the field for a game-winning Wil Lutz field goal -- with just seconds remaining -- and 34-31 victory to stay atop the NFC South.
Let's take a deeper dive into how the Saints survived the Panthers on Sunday:
Why the Saints won
In a game that saw both sides rack up yards and points, the Saints were simply more explosive. Drew Brees opened with fantastic efficiency but also looked unafraid to stretch the field, and every single one of New Orleans' weapons contributed in a big way. The Alvin Kamara-Latavius Murray duo averaged an astounding 6.6 yards per carry against the Panthers defense, offsetting Carolina's solid pass rush, while Michael Thomas and Jared Cook combined for 16 catches, 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns. New Orleans wasn't exactly a brick wall on defense, allowing Allen to guide the Panthers up and down the field in the latter stretches of the matchup, but New Orleans' offensive production ensured the Saints would have the last shot at victory. With 17 first downs through the air and a 7.1 yards-per-play average, Payton's squad overcame 12 penalties and Carolina's fourth-quarter comeback attempt to get the "W."
Why the Panthers lost
It comes down to missed opportunities. The Panthers weren't short on their own offensive production, with McCaffrey totaling 133 yards and two scores in another MVP-caliber performance, Moore running loose in the Saints secondary and Greg Olsen hauling in some clutch catches in the fourth. But unlike New Orleans, they couldn't capitalize enough. Ron Rivera inexplicably convinced the refs to overturn a pass-interference non-call on a third-and-goal incompletion, then watched as his team failed on three straight plays to punch the ball in. Joey Slye, of course, epitomized missed opportunities more than anyone Sunday, missing two extra points and then a 28-yard go-ahead field-goal attempt in the game's final minutes. As a whole, Carolina was clean and resilient, but simply neither as explosive nor as opportunistic as its rival.
It had to be Slye's 28-yard shank. The Panthers were literally positioned to take an improbable three-point lead with two minutes left in the contest, and yet Carolina's kicker couldn't connect. This was a turning point not only because it ensured the Panthers would be playing for overtime after coming back from down 16 but because it guaranteed Brees and Co. a solid possession -- and complete control of the clock -- with the game still knotted at 31. The Slye miss, of course, was followed by the Saints' 11-play, 65-yard drive to win.
Play of the game
Down seven in the fourth, the Panthers got a huge injection of life with Tre Boston's jump-ball pick with about 12 minutes remaining. And the interception was highlight-reel worthy, with Boston coming from out of nowhere to steal Brees' pass to Tre'Quan Smith near midfield and put Carolina back in business.
"I feel terrible. We needed a win. I have a huge hand in this loss."
Slye's words after the Panthers' loss pretty much paint the picture of Carolina's afternoon. The Panthers, at 5-5 coming in, really could've used a victory to stay in the NFC playoff picture, and while they took it down to the wire and aren't yet completely out of the mix, the fact that things were so close and yet swung in New Orleans' favor will likely haunt Carolina for a while.
The Panthers (5-6) will be back at home on Sunday, Dec. 1, when they host the Washington Redskins (2-9) in what should be a potential rebound for them in the hunt for an NFC Wild Card spot. The Saints (9-2), meanwhile, will have just a few days of rest before hitting the road and taking on another NFC South rival, the Atlanta Falcons (3-8), in the third of three Thanksgiving Day matchups, at 8:20 p.m. Eastern.
Relive all the action from Sunday's divisional clash right here: