The New Orleans Saints overcame several obstacles, including themselves, while escaping with a hard-fought 34-31 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The win puts New Orleans on the verge of their third consecutive NFC South championship, as they attempt to position themselves for a top seed in the competitive NFC playoff race. Here are my major takeaways from this hard fought divisional battle.
1. P.J. Williams is at best Erratic.
Williams, a fifth year cornerback, started in place of the injured Marshon Lattimore for the second straight game. He played well in last week’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but was heavily targeted by Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen on Sunday afternoon. He did not play well, getting caught out of position several times for crippling completions or being flagged for penalties. Williams would give up 2 touchdown passes and well over 100 yards, mostly against wideout D.J. Moore while looking lost.
The entire New Orleans secondary played arguably their worst game since a Week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, but at its apex was Williams. He has always played better on a limited snap count and primarily in slot coverage but was taken advantage of many times by the Panther passing attack. A more dynamic passing game like the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night could cause disaster for a Saints secondary that had been playing terrific football before this outing.
2. The Saints Investment in Jared Cook is Paying Off
New Orleans signed Cook, a Pro Bowl tight end, to a lucrative free agent deal this offseason in hopes that he would be another bonafide threat to their thin receiving corps. After a slow start, Cook has carved out a vital role in the New Orleans offense. He had 6 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers, his best game since joining the team. Cook provided a threat in the middle of the field and down the seam that helped open up things for Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara during their pivotal 4th quarter game-clinching drive.
Cook’s emergence gives the Saints another reliable and formidable target for quarterback Drew Brees down the stretch of the season. Seventeen of Brees’ 18 second half completions against the Panthers were to either Cook, Alvin Kamara, or Michael Thomas. Brees will need all three at the top of their game when they visit the Falcons Thursday night.
3. Terron Armstead’s Injury
An offensive line that was already minus starter Andrus Peat was further thinned when Armstead, their star left tackle, went down with a high ankle sprain midway through the first quarter. Replacement Patrick Omameh played adequately in Armstead’s place, but a talented Carolina front focused their pass rush along the left side of the New Orleans line with some success. Armstead will likely miss at least a couple games, and certainly this Thursday’s showdown with Atlanta. The Falcons sacked Brees 6 times when these teams met earlier this month, and will be a stiff test for this now shorthanded offensive line.
4. Wil Lutz and the Special Teams
Early in the first quarter on Sunday, a muffed Carolina punt set New Orleans up for their second touchdown. The play was caused by outstanding special teams coverage, something that the Saints have gotten most of the year.
Special teams will often be the difference in a close game and it certainly was in this contest. Carolina kicker Joey Slye missed two extra points and misfired on a short field goal attempt with two minutes remaining. New Orleans kicker Wil Lutz nailed his own 33-Yd attempt just minutes later to provide the margin of victory. Lutz has converted 24 of his last 25 fourth quarter field goal attempts and is all but automatic inside of 50 yards.
The Saints may need to rely again on their outstanding kicking game in more games down the stretch. They face a number of stiff challenges as they battle for one of the top seeds for the playoffs. While there is no doubting the Saints’ incredible talent on both sides of the ball, there is something else that sets them apart from some of the other top contenders.
5. The Resilience of the New Orleans Saints
New Orleans came into this contest without their best defensive back (Lattimore), their starting left guard (Peat), starting fullback (Zach Line), and top kick returner. The Saints would then lose their left tackle Armstead, lose a two touchdown lead in the first quarter, and put forth their most inconsistent defensive execution in weeks. The Saints would also have to combat a number of imagined penalties and no-calls by the officiating crew, a spirited effort from the feisty Panthers, and their own miscues.
Despite all this, New Orleans remained vigilant themselves and fought right down to the wire for the win. These Saints are far more than just a deep and talented squad. They’re a resilient group that finds a way to win. It’s a trait thst trickles down from their leader.
6. Nobody is better than Drew Brees. Nobody.
Even at 40 years old, Brees makes the brilliant seem routine. The quarterback took the field with 1:56 remaining in the game, 1 timeout at his disposal and locked in a 31-31 tie. The left side of his offensive line had backups in place and the momentum in the hands of the visiting Panthers. To worsen matters, Brees was sacked on the first play of the drive, moving the ball back to the Saints’ 14-yard line. Cooly and like few others who have ever played, Brees hit Michael Thomas for a 14 yard completion on the next play to get the Saints back on track and focused on carrying this drive through to victory.
Brees would complete 6 of his 8 throws on the drive and 30 of 39 passes for 311 yards and 3 touchdowns for the game. The Saints passing game is no longer expected to win games by itself on a weekly basis, but their iconic quarterback has shown that he is still perfectly capable of doing so when needed.