- New Orleans has two regular-season wins over Carolina, making the NFC South division title theirs to lose.
Sunday was Separation Sunday in the most competitive division in football.
Heading into Week 13, the NFC South boasted three legitimate playoff teams in the Panthers, the Saints and the Falcons, with the former two meeting for the second time this season and the latter hosting the playoff-bound Vikings. Carolina and New Orleans were knotted atop the division at 8–3 with Atlanta trailing by a game. But with a Falcons loss and a Saints victory, New Orleans is now in clear control of the NFC South with a quarter of the season left to play.
The Saints, who topped the Panthers 31–21 at home Sunday, completed a series sweep of the Cats for the first time since 2011—now they hold that tiebreaker and outpace the Falcons by two games in the standings heading into their Thursday night tilt.
Everything New Orleans does well was on display against Carolina. They continued their fantastically efficient ground game with 145 rushing yards from soon-to-be-named Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara and workhorse Mark Ingram, who busted out for a 72-yard scamper in the first half. Equipped with a competent ground game, Drew Brees only had to put together a typical Brees game and complete 25-of-34 passes for 269 yards and no turnovers.
Despite rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore (ankle) missing another game, the Saints’ defense still neutered the Panthers’ offense in the second half. After the opening possession touchdown, the Panthers couldn’t put together a drive of more than five plays until the early in the fourth quarter. Cam Jordan was in Newton’s lap most of the afternoon, Ken Crawley had a great pass breakup on what would have been a Damiere Byrd touchdown and later a big-time tackle on Devin Funchess to force a turnover on downs in the fourth quarter.
And even what the Saints don’t do well, they seemed to do slightly better on Sunday. New Orleans’ special teams unit has been in the league cellar in most categories, and while Wil Lutz missed a 38-yard field goal, the Saints forced a Kaelin Clay punt-return fumble midway through the fourth quarter when it looked like Carolina would have one last chance to get back into the game.
Two strange second-quarter plays would go on to haunt the Panthers. Michael Palardy, in the league’s top ten in both punting average and net average, mishandled the snap, and rather than attempting a rugby-style kick, he opted to throw the ball for what would be an incompletion, giving the Saints the ball on the Carolina 31.
But the Panthers’ defense, one of the league’s best, had the Saints stopped on third down when future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers wouldn’t let go of Tommylee Lewis on the sideline and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Three plays later, Brees found Michael Thomas for the touchdown to go up two scores.
The Saints are still trying to keep pace with the 10-win Eagles and Vikings for a first-round bye and home-field advantage, but certainly the argument can be made for New Orleans as the best team in the NFC. The Saints have the best quarterback of the NFC contenders, the best backfield, one of the best coaches and a defense that doesn’t have an obvious weak link.
Now, thanks to Separation Sunday, the Saints are closer to bringing postseason football back to the Superdome.