Brian Allee-Walsh

‘Great teams find a way,’ but the Saints are winning in ways nobody expected

The well-traveled Black and Gold will be home for the holidays ... and beyond!

After outlasting the Carolina Panthers 12-9 on Monday night to complete a challenging three-game road stretch since Thanksgiving, the New Orleans Saints took one step closer to capturing NFC home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Saints moved to a league-best 12-2 record and hold a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Rams (11-3) in the NFC. New Orleans also owns a tiebreaker over the Rams by virtue of a 45-35 win in Week 9.

The Saints closed out the road portion of their schedule with an impressive 7-1 record, leaving only home games against the AFC-North leading Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at 3:25 p.m. (CBS) and a return match against the Panthers at noon on Dec. 30 before the postseason commences in January.

A victory against either the Steelers (8-5-1) will ensure the NFC road to Super Bowl LIII going through the Big Easy, meaning the Saints would play host to a divisional round playoff game (Jan. 12-13) and, if victorious, the NFC championship (Jan. 20).

Super Bowl LIII will be played Feb. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Though not looking like the NFC’s No. 1 team and Super Bowl contender, the Saints did just enough to keep the pesky Panthers at bay on a national stage at Bank of America Stadium.

New Orleans can thank a gritty defense under coordinator Dennis Allen, which now can boast a six-game strech of yielding fewer than 18 points in any game, a high water mark during the Sean Payton era.

The 12 points also represents the Saints’ lowest winning output since Week 8 of the 1998 season when coach Mike Ditka’s team beat the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-3.

Running back Alvin Kamara provided the go-ahead points with a 16-yard TD run to give the Saints a 12-7 lead with 12:12 remaining. That score changed moments later when Panthers rookie cornerback Donte Jackson thwarted a 2-point conversion attempt with an interception and pick-2 against quarterback Drew Brees, making it a 3-point game.

It appeared the Saints would put the game away inside the 2-minute warning but wide receiver Tommylee Lewis fumbled the ball through the end zone to give the Panthers one last chance under quarterback Cam Newton with 1:44 remaining.

But the Panthers and Newton went out with a whimper, turning the ball over on downs at their 39 with 35 seconds remaining and enabling the Saints to run out the clock. Newton is dealing with a bum throwing shoulder and clearly not at his best.

As well as the Saints defense played by holding the Panthers to 247 yards (90 of which came in the first quarter on their only TD drive), the Saints offense struggled mightily for the third consecutive game. Brees completed 23 of 35 passes for 203 yards and one INT and posted his lowest passer rating of the season (69.1).

Brees did not throw a TD pass for the first time in 20 games.

After throwing one INT in his first 10 games, Brees now has thrown an INT in each of his last four games. Additionally, Brees has put up pedestrian numbers in three straight road games — against Dallas (127 yards-1 TD-1 INT-71.6 rating), Tampa Bay (201-1-1-90.9) and now Carolina (203-0-1-69.1) — and possibly compromised his chances of winning his first NFL MVP award.

Afterward, Brees acknowledged the team’s recent offensive shortcomings and his own struggles but was quick to remind reporters they accomplished their primary goal.

“A win is a win,” he said. “The bottom line is you make plays to win at the end of the game. And that’s what we did — defensively. The great teams find a way. They believe.”

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.
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