NEW ORLEANS No-name kicker Wil Lutz bailed the New Orleans Saints out of a potentially embarrassing situation Sunday, booting a 52-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining for an improbable 41-38 win over the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The game between the dregs of the NFC South should never have come down to Lutz’ right foot in the waning seconds as the Saints zoomed out to a commanding 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.
But when you have two bend-and-break defensive units sharing a field, no lead is safe, apparently no matter how large that lead might be.
And this game bore that out.
New Orleans improved to 2-3 and avenged a loss to the Panthers in the Superdome a year ago by the identical score. The Panthers, meanwhile, fell to 1-5 after losing their fourth consecutive game and now sit in sole possession of the division cellar.
The time for panic in Panthers Nation officially is now. Though 10 games remain in their regular season, you can stick a fork in these Panthers. It’s time to bury the three-time defending NFC South champions and reigning NFC champions.
The conference king is dead.
And let the record show that Lutz threw the first shovel of dirt on Carolina, drilling the game winner where it hurt coach Ron Rivera’s team the most, right between the uprights in the Girod Street end zone.
This is the same Wil Lutz who yanked a potential game-winning 61-yard field goal attempt as time expired in a 35-34 loss against the Oakland Raiders at the Superdome in Week 1. It is the same Will Lutz who yanked a 50-yard field goal attempt wide left early in the fourth quarter that would have extended the Saints lead to eight points over the Raiders.
Instead the missed FG attempt enabled the Raiders to stay in the game, and eventually win on a touchdown and 2-point conversion with 47 seconds left.
Afterward, Saints coach Sean Payton defended Lutz, saying the undrafted rookie from Georgia State had earned a spot on the 53-man roster with a workout for the ages. Payton also had a word for his critics and naysayers, vowing Lutz would be in New Orleans long after the head coach was gone.
Let me say this: Had the Saints lost Sunday’s game, after establishing early superiority in front of a rabid sellout crowd 73,138, Payton’s critics might have pushed him out the door.
Now before anyone in Who Dat Nation starts making Super Bowl LI plans, think again. The Black and Gold defense continues to yield points (38) and yards (406) with alarming regularity. That said, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his passel of plamakers also exposed the Panthers’ Achilles heel, amassing 523 total yards, including 465 through the air, his NFL-record 15th 400-yard game.
Four of Brees’ 34 completions resulted in touchdowns.
And the Saints would need every one of them.
“When we got up by 21,’’ Brees said, “we knew it was going to be a four-quarter sucker.’’
Down to the final, frenetic seconds.