Drew Brees
almost there

Saints move closer to securing home advantage in NFL playoffs after edging out Panthers

Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are one win away from clinching the top seed in the NFC.

THE NEW ORLEANS Saints are one win away from securing the top seed in the NFC after defeating the Carolina Panthers 12-9.

Drew Brees and the Saints moved a step closer to clinching home-field advantage in the NFL playoffs thanks to Monday’s victory at Bank of America Stadium.

New Orleans’ victory sent them a full game clear of the Los Angeles Rams in the race for top spot in the NFC, with one more victory in week 16 or 17 enough to clinch home-field advantage due to the Saints’ superior head-to-head triebreaker with the Rams.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton struggled to get the offense going and Carolina’s (6-8) losing skid continued with their sixth consecutive loss.

The Saints used a lone touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to pull ahead. But, it was the third game where the offense struggled in Brees’ MVP-calibre campaign. It was also the second consecutive win for New Orleans, who improved to 12-2.

Saints Panthers Football Mike McCarn Mike McCarn

The Dallas Cowboys cracked the code in week 13 and handed the Saints their first loss since week one.

The following week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans accounted for just three first-half rushing yards and 105 total yards.

This time around, the Saints again struggled against a defense that has allowed the fifth-highest passer rating in the league.

New Orleans trailed until a touchdown by running back Alvin Kamara in the final quarter, and they only managed to tally two early field goals in the first and second quarters.

There were plenty of times when Brees exposed the Panthers’ struggling pass rush, but he did not always finish drives.

The Saints punted twice in the first half and a drive that finally got into Carolina’s territory resulted in an interception. But nothing came of the pick because Newton threw his own on the ensuing possession. 

Brees finished with one of his lowest completion rates of the season (65.7 per cent, 23 of 35) and threw for just 203 yards.

Monday’s contest was also just the second time Brees did not record a touchdown this season.

While it seems obvious that Brees will need to find the end zone in at least one of the team’s next two games, another strong defensive performance and showing from Kamara could do the trick.

Saints Panthers Football Brees in action for the Saints. Mike McCarn Mike McCarn

Speaking of New Orleans’ defense: The Saints boast one of the top units in the league.

They have not allowed more than 17 points in their last five games, they have had the top run defense for most of the season and have pass rushers like Cameron Jordan and Demario Davis, who was a recent addition this offseason, to help shut down opposing quarterbacks.

This is exactly what they did against Newton.

Newton, who has been struggling with a shoulder injury that has seriously affected his ability to throw the ball, looked even more uncomfortable against the Saints.

His throws ended up falling short of receivers on what should have been easy completions, and to get the team into the end zone, the Panthers looked to second-year running back Christian McCaffrey instead.

The 2015 MVP had his worst outing to date, finishing 16-of-29 passing for 131 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, including an end-zone pick that could have given Carolina more of a cushion heading into half-time.

Newton has now thrown interceptions in six consecutive games.

New Orleans got to Newton four times with Davis leading the charge. He finished with eight total tackles and one sack.

It’s hard to come away with positives when a team that was winning week, after week, after week fall off and cannot manage to find their way back. But, the talented McCaffrey has managed to put together impressive numbers despite Carolina’s struggles. 

Saints Panthers Football Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey. Jason E. Miczek Jason E. Miczek

He set the franchise record with yards from scrimmage on the Panthers’ first drive, and on their second he became the first non-quarterback to throw a touchdown pass in Panthers history.

He tallied 53 rushing yards against this tough defense and grabbed eight passes for 67 yards. He also joined Hall of Famer Walter Payton as the second player in the Super Bowl era with 50-plus pass, rush and receiving yards in a single game. 

Maybe it was the sweep New Orleans handed to McCaffrey during his rookie season, or maybe it was this pregame meeting with his mom that hyped him up.

Whatever it is, the Panthers need to continue to see these type of performances from McCaffrey.

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Eddie O’Sullivan preview another big weekend of Heineken Cup action and dissect the week’s main talking points.

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