Brian Allee-Walsh

Saints all alone in first place after sweeping Panthers

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) passes under pressure from Carolina Panthers defensive end Bryan Cox (91) and defensive end Wes Horton (96).
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) passes under pressure from Carolina Panthers defensive end Bryan Cox (91) and defensive end Wes Horton (96). Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS With four games remaining in the regular season, it appears only one team stands between the New Orleans Saints and their first NFC South championship since 2011.

The New Orleans Saints.

They took over sole possession of first place with an impressive 31-21 victory against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, completing a season sweep of the Panthers for the first time in six years.

The Saints (9-3) stayed put as the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoff race, behind the Philadelphia Eagles (10-1), Minnesota Vikings (10-2) and the Los Angeles Rams (9-3).

And while Sunday’s all-important victory enabled the Saints (9-3) to put distance between themselves and Carolina (8-4) in the division, they have little time to celebrate. The Black and Gold jump right back into the divisional fires at 7:26 p.m. Thursday against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (NBC/NFLN/Amazon), the first of two games between the teams in 17 days.

The Falcons (7-5) now trail the Saints by two games after falling to the visiting NFC North-leading Vikings 14-9.

“It’s going to be a busy next few days,’’ Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We have a lot to do in a short period of time to prepare for that game. This is another test for our team, against another quality football team.’’

Much like Week 3 when New Orleans scored a resounding 34-13 road victory at Carolina, the much-anticipated rematch between the co-division leaders went according to script for the serendipitous Saints, largely because of a gritty defense that frustrated Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and sensational rookie running back Alvin Kamara.

Kamara was spectacular, accounting for 126 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches, including scoring runs of 2 yards in the first quarter and 20 yards in the third quarter. On each score, he broke multiple tackles and the collective will of numerous Carolina defenders en route to the end zone.

Kamara dotted the exclamation point with a signature 22-yard catch-and-run at the 2-minute mark in the fourth quarter, hurdling one would-be tackler inside the Panthers’ 30 and busting his bottom lip in the process. That first down play enabled Brees to close out the game in victory formation.

Kamara and fellow Saints running back Mark Ingram (122 yards, one TD) continued their all-out assault on opposing defenses, combining for 248 yards from scrimmage and three scores against the Panthers who entered the game with the NFL’s second-ranked defense.

Kamara and Ingram now have combined for 2,397 yards from scrimmage and 20 TDs -- Kamara (1,220-11) and Ingram (1,177-9), bringing to mind the Saints’ Thunder & Lightning running back tandem of Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath in the late 1970s.

But let’s not get carried away.

The Falcons -- these are desperate times for the reigning NFC South and conference champions -- lie in wait.

“There’s a lot of football left to be played, especially in our division,’’ Brees cautioned.

Yes there is.

But the Saints sure are sitting pretty after Week 13.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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