Cam Newton's day wasn't pretty, but it was eminently successful. (Chuck Burton/AP)
The Carolina Panthers knew one thing when they welcomed the New Orleans Saints to Bank of America Stadium -- if they beat the team that beat them two weeks ago, and won their regular-season finale against the Atlanta Falcons, they would take the NFC South division. They also knew that by winning Sunday's game, they'd make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, division crown or not.
They were able to get the first of those two feats accomplished with a 17-13 win over the Saints, though it was by no means easy. It was the kind of victory the 11-4 Panthers have been rolling out through most of their season -- they haven't scored more than 35 points since late September, but their defense has been the team's highlight through most of the season, and it was the defense that kept things in line for Ron Rivera's team against New Orleans.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who's been answering questions for most of the year about his home-road splits, completed 30-of-48 passes for 281 yards, a touchdown and two picks. The touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham came with 6:43 left in the game to give the Saints a 13-10 lead, but the two interceptions, going as they did to linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, spotlit the Panthers' two defensive stars of the day. Davis was impressive roving the field, and Kuechly continued his march to a possible Defensive Player of the Year nod with 24 total tackles.
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On offense, Carolina had its share of concerns. Receiver Steve Smith was lost in the first half to a knee injury, and Cam Newton struggled to overcome Smith's absence for the most part. He completed a 44-yarder to Smith in the first quarter, but was bottled up until Carolina got the ball on its own 35-yard line with 55 seconds left. Newton then made three incredibly impressive throws: There was the 37-yard pass across the deep middle to Ted Ginn into coverage when Newton was under pressure. Then, there was the 14-yarder to tight end Greg Olsen, thrown into a tight window. And Newton ended the drive with a bullet to Domenik Hixon for the go-ahead touchdown.
“He struggled today and he knows it,” Rivera said of his quarterback. “But when we needed him to make plays, the young man made plays. He got another game-winning drive out of it. We will most certainly build confidence off this win.”
At that point, it didn't matter that the Panthers had gone three-and-out on seven of their 13 total drives. Nor did it mean a thing that Newton was sacked four times, and harassed in and out of the pocket fairly constantly. New Orleans outgained Carolina 239-141, but that was statistical noise, and it was so because of the efforts of the Carolina defense.
Saints head coach Sean Payton made a lot of waves this week when he benched left tackle Charles Brown for rookie Terron Armstead, a player with no real NFL experience. Brown got the shaft after appearing vulnerable against the St. Louis Rams' formidable front, but Armstead looked even more overmatched against right end Greg Hardy. Hardy had three of Carolina's six sacks, two more tackles for loss and a bevy of pressures. Brees couldn't get set right on a play-to-play basis, and it says a lot about the defense that it was able to do that against a quarterback known for making his lines look better -- and enemy lines look rather foolish.
The move to replace Brown with Armstead was especially galling because in the five games before the St. Louis adventure, Brown hadn't allowed a single sack -- and he didn't allow a single quarterback pressure of any kind when the Saints beat the Panthers, 31-13, in Week 14.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called a brilliant game, alternating perfectly between pressure and coverage -- defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Quintin Mikell each had sacks of their own, and six Panthers defenders had passes defensed against Brees.
It's a good time to be the Panthers. If everything goes their way from here on out, they'll have the NFC's second seed, they'll get a first-round bye, and even if they have to head to Seattle at some point in the postseason, they can be satisfied in that they've established themselves as the team no NFC opponent wants to face.