NFL

Saints survive slugfest, crush Panthers' playoff hopes

The New Orleans Saints (12-2) are one win away from securing home-field advantage in the NFC after holding off the Carolina Panthers (6-8) on Monday night, 12-9, to close out Week 15. Here’s what we learned:

1. The once-unstoppable Saints offense sputtered for the third time in as many weeks, but did enough against a fierce Panthers defense to come away with their league-best 12th win of the season. Behind an offensive line that was without starting left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger, who suffered a concussion, Drew Brees saw good pressure and even better coverage from Carolina and had his rhythm thrown off for much of the evening. The MVP candidate relied on Alvin Kamara (109 total yards, 21 touches) to move New Orleans along for most of the game, but New Orleans was churning best when Michael Thomas (7 rec, 49 yards) found a rare soft spot in Carolina’s defense. Brees wasn’t without major errors. The QB threw one pick in the run of play on an underthrow near the end of the first half and then tossed another on the goal-line following New Orleans’ lone touchdown in the fourth quarter. Trying to squeeze a two-point conversion toward Kamara through a triangle of Panthers defenders, Brees instead threw right at speedy rookie Donte Jackson, who took the ball end zone to end zone for the ever-rare pick-two, creating a four-point swing. On New Orleans’ ensuing drive, the Saints relied on Kamara, Thomas and Mark Ingram yet again to wind down the clock before attempting to ice the game with a jet sweep to Tommylee Lewis. The backup receiver inexplicably fumbled the ball out of the end zone from the 1, giving Carolina one more shot at a victory. Cam Newton couldn’t cash in, and New Orleans blew a sigh of relief.

All is not right with this Saints offense. A lack of depth on the offensive line and in the receiving corps is glaring and the Saints’ lack of efficiency on third down (4-for-13) will not fly in January. But New Orleans is in prime position with two games left to secure home-field advantage in the postseason, and that might be enough. The Saints have not lost in the Superdome in the playoffs during the Brees-Sean Payton era.

2. The Panthers’ season is all but over with Monday night’s loss. Carolina falls to 6-8, one-and-a-half games behind the Vikings and a game behind the Eagles and Redskins in pursuit of the sixth seed. Save for an unlikely confluence of events (Carolina winning out, Washington and Minnesota losing out), the Panthers are donezo, and so could be the Ron Rivera era in Charlotte.

Around The NFL will have more on this game shortly.

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