NEW ORLEANS After surviving a last-minute wild-card scare Sunday from the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints now can turn their full attention to righting an early season wrong.
The Saints scored a wire-to-wire 31-26 victory over the Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, setting up a divisional round showdown at 3:40 p.m. Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank of America Stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
The Saints (12-5) will be out to avenge a 29-19 season-opening loss to the Vikings (13-3), a game played nearly four months ago on a national stage at the same stadium and the site of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4.
Carolina (11-6) nearly prevented New Orleans from staying alive in the postseason, turning a late interception of quarterback Drew Brees into a last-ditch effort to steal a victory on the road after twice losing to the Saints in the regular season.
After driving to the Saints 21-yard line inside the final minute, the Panthers suffered a costly intentional grounding call against quarterback Cam Newton that resulted in loss of down and devastating 10-second runoff at the Saints 34.
The end came moments later for Carolina when blitzing Saints safety Vonn Bell sacked Newton for a 17-yard loss on fourth-and-23, trggering a collective sigh of relief and wild celebration from the sellout crowd of 73,186.
When Brees came out to seal the deal in victory formation at midfield, the Saints pocketed their first post-season conquest since the wildcard round of the 2013 season when they upended the Philadelphia Eagles 26-24 for the first road playoff win in franchise history.
The Saints’ late, gritty defensive stand bailed out coach Sean Payton, whose decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 47-yard line with two minutes remaining will be a hot topic for debate around the water cooler Monday morning.
Panthers’ safety Michael Adams intercepted Brees’ errant pass intended for rookie running back Alvin Kamara and fumbled the ball out bounds at the Carolina 31. After further review, the Panthers would have been better off if Adams had knocked the ball down, costing Carolina 16 crucial yards in the process.
In the end, the Panthers can take some solace from the crushing loss, knowing their defense slowed down the Saints’ talented running back tandem of Boom & Zoom: Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The dynamic duo had been averaging 193 yards from scrimmage through 16 games but was limited to 68 yards Sunday, including a 2-yard touchdown run by Kamara with 5:08 remaining that ultimately proved the margin of victory.
Now it’s on to Minnesota where the Saints didn’t exactly distinguish themselves in Week 1, falling victim to one of the NFL’s top defensive units and hot-handed quarterback Sam Bradford who suffered a knee injury and relinquished the starting job to veteran Case Keenum.
“Carolina had their run at the Super Bowl,’’ said Saints Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan, whose pressure on Newton instigated the key intentional grounding penalty and put the Panthers into desperation mode. “Now it’s our turn.’’
Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at email@example.com.