The points have not piled up at such a dizzying rate in recent weeks for the New Orleans Saints. Talk of the year of the unstoppable offenses in the NFL — those of the Saints, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs — has quieted a bit.
But that didn’t matter all too much to the Saints late Monday night. Once they were done fighting their way to a grind-it-out victory at Carolina by the un-Saints-like score of 12-9, they were headed back to New Orleans. If all goes the way they’re planning, they won’t have to leave there again until a potential trip to Atlanta for the Super Bowl.
“The defense played exceptionally well tonight,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees told ESPN after the game. “Offensively I felt like we squandered a ton of opportunities — a lot of just little things, a lot of little mistakes that we’re gonna have to clean up if we want to reach the level we want to reach.”
That level is that of a title team. The Saints are oh-so-close to ensuring that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through New Orleans. Their triumph Monday improved their record to 12-2. They’re a game ahead of the Rams in the chase for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. They also hold the tiebreaker advantage over the Rams by virtue of beating them. So the Saints need to win only one of their final two regular season games to clinch the top seed.
Both of those games will be played at home, against the Pittsburgh Steelers this coming Sunday and then against the Panthers in the regular season finale.
Brees and the offense were not dominant Monday, just as they weren’t overwhelming in their previous two games — both on the road — a loss at Dallas and a comeback victory at Tampa.
“The Saints offense, something just doesn’t look right with them,” analyst Jason Witten, the former Cowboys tight end, said on the ESPN broadcast Monday.
It might all just be about regression to the mean. In this season of revved-up offenses, some predicted all along that defenses eventually would close the competitive gap a bit. That seems to have happened in recent weeks, with the Chiefs and Rams experiencing similar offensive issues.
“These high-powered offenses, people have had a long time to study them,” former NFL defensive lineman Booger McFarland said on the ESPN broadcast.
Brees threw for a modest 203 yards Monday and didn’t have a touchdown pass. The Panthers limited the Saints to a pair of field goals in the first half and led, 7-6, at the break via a trick-play touchdown pass thrown by running back Christian McCaffrey. The Saints finally got a touchdown in the fourth quarter on a run by Alvin Kamara, only to have Brees throw an interception on the two-point conversion attempt that was returned by the Panthers to the opposite end zone for two points of their own.
“There were some not-very-smart errors on our part,” Brees said. “We had a couple personal fouls that can’t happen, 15 yards after big plays. We had some dropped balls. We had some bad throws by me. We didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.”
The biggest mistake of all by the Saints came as they were trying to close out the game in the final moments. Wide receiver Tommylee Lewis, running the ball on a third-and-four end-around from the Carolina 5-yard line, reached the football toward the first-down marker and the goal line as he was hit. The ball was dislodged from Lewis’s hand and sailed out of bounds and, in the officials’ estimation, through the end zone. By rule, that meant the Panthers took possession of the football with a touchback with 1:44 left.
The play led to a social-media debate about the merits of that rule. But while it may be a silly one, and while the football may or may not have actually gone through the end zone before going out of bounds, there was a simple remedy for Lewis and the Saints: Don’t hold the football out like that, and don’t lose it.
It didn’t hurt the Saints, as the Panthers couldn’t take advantage and quarterback Cam Newton threw a fourth-down incompletion with 35 seconds to play. That’s how it went pretty much all night for Newton, whose ailing throwing shoulder obviously is hindering him. The Panthers’ downward spiral continued with their sixth straight loss following a 6-2 beginning to the season.
And the Saints showed they’re about more than Brees and their offense. They last won a game while scoring 12 or fewer points in October of 1998.
“At this point in the season,” Witten said, “you take it any way you can get it.”
It was the 117th regular season triumph in tandem for Brees and Coach Sean Payton, moving them past Dan Marino and Don Shula for the second most ever by a quarterback-and-coach combo during the Super Bowl era. The record, of course, belongs to the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, with 205.
Brees and Payton now can set their sights squarely on what could be a second Super Bowl win together. If their defense continues to play the way it did Monday night, the task will become that much easier. Their victory Monday puts the Saints in very good position.
“It was so huge,” Brees said. “Divisional opponent — this is a tough opponent, no matter where you play them. Just one at a time, keep stacking ‘em.”
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