CHARLOTTE — Three thoughts off New Orleans’s 12–9 win against Carolina on Monday night:
1. The 12–2 Saints may very well be the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and going to New Orleans to face the Saints wearing all black in the Superdome will be a tall task for any foe. But this team isn’t exactly playing world-beating football down the stretch. Recall the 13–10 Week 13 loss to Dallas on Thursday Night Football two weeks ago. The Saints trailed the Bucs midway through the third quarter last week. And Monday night against a desperate Panthers team, the Saints couldn’t put away their NFC South foe despite multiple chances. New Orleans had four punts, two turnovers and one touchdown while going four-for-13 on third down. Drew Brees, whose 69.1 passer rating was his lowest in a game since 2016, is limping down the stretch and may lose out on his first MVP after having a good grip on it in November. The Saints have two tough games left against the Steelers and Panthers before turning their attention to hosting a divisional round game.
2. This game had everything. A rare Brees interception (his fifth of the year) to a team that hadn’t picked off a pass since Nov. 4. A roughing the kicker foul. A touchdown throw from a running back (the first in Carolina Panthers’ history somehow). A failed two-point conversion attempt returned for two points (also a Carolina first). A fumble out of the end zone for a touchback in the final minutes of the game. I wish I could say it was a great game, but it was at least interesting.
3. What a disappointing season for the Carolina Panthers. There are other teams that have failed more spectacularly—Jacksonville, New York Giants and Green Bay to name a few—but at least those teams were letdowns (mostly) from start to finish. Carolina started the season 6-2, and Monday night’s contest seemed destined to go a long way in deciding the NFC South. Instead, New Orleans entered with the division wrapped up and Carolina’s playoff chances couldn’t be slimmer after dropping its sixth straight game. I ultimately believe Ron Rivera’s job is safe for this season, but there will still be major changes to this team. Cam Newton’s shoulder probably needs offseason surgery for the second time in three years. Former No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess, in the final year of his rookie deal, has disappeared from the field in the past three weeks. Carolina, which has the two oldest defenders in the NFL, has to get younger and faster on defense. A new defensive coordinator—possibly old defensive coordinator and current Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks—will be named. A legitimate backup to Newton, entering his age-30 season, should be signed or drafted in the spring. A new era has begun under owner David Tepper, and the heat will be on in 2019.