CHARLOTTE — It wasn’t pretty, but the New Orleans Saints marched on, defeating the Carolina Panthers 12-9 at Bank of America Stadium on Monday night. In so doing, they improved 12-2 on the season and further protected their lead atop the NFC standings with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Panthers remained in the game the whole time, and led for much of the contest. But they couldn’t hang on for the victory and suffered their sixth straight defeat.
Here are three things we learned from this game.
1. Even on their worst days, the Saints find a way:Week 15 of the NFL season featured a number of uncharacteristic performances by some of the league’s top teams. New Orleans fell under this category as Drew Brees & Co. struggled for much of the game to find any kind of rhythm. They fell short on nine of 14 third downs. They turned the ball over twice. They didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter. But while the Chiefs, Patriots and Rams all lost, the Saints managed to overcome the ills that plagued them.
The Panthers contained wide receiver Michael Thomas, holding him to just 49 yards on seven catches. They limited the prolific Brees to 203 passing yards and sacked him twice. But New Orleans’ defense also played well to ensure that the Saints remained in the game. A takeaway late in the third quarter led to the drive that the Saints used to take their first lead (12-9) — an advantage they never surrendered. The effectiveness of the Saints defense, coupled with the resolve of the Brees-led offense is what makes New Orleans on of the best — if not the best — team in the league.
2. Carolina remained true to form: The Saints gave the Panthers plenty of opportunities. But in a fashion befitting a team with a losing record, Carolina seemingly did everything in its power to keep this game close. The Panthers committed penalties to extend Saints drives. They couldn’t sustain anything of their own offensively, and eventually, New Orleans finally made them pay with an 11-play, 84-yard scoring drive capped by a 16-yard Alvin Kamara touchdown run with 12:12 left in the game. The Panthers never managed to overtake the Saints. No error proved more costly than did D.J. Moore’s late third-quarter fumble.
The Panthers finally had seemed to find a rhythm on a series that saw Cam Newton connect on a number of quick-hitters. Newton picked up a first down on a sneak (originally not marked a first down near midfield, but corrected after a Panthers challenge), but then after picking up 24 yards on a misdirection run, Moore had the ball poked out, and the Saints recovered at their own 16. That’s where the 84-yard scoring drive began for New Orleans. Give the Panthers credit for this, however, they didn’t just roll over after giving up that touchdown. Safety Donte Jackson picked off Brees’ pass on the two-point conversion attempt and returned it the length of the field for two points. And just when it appeared that the Panthers defenders had worn down during a 14-play Saints drive to the goal line, the unit got the ball back, forcing a Tommylee Lewis fumble for a touchback with 1:51 left on the clock.
3. Newton’s health is a real issue: Give Cam Newton credit for being the good soldier. But at this point, you have to wonder if it’s really beneficial for Carolina to continue to play him. His size, athleticism and physicality serve him well. But the shoulder injury that has hampered him — and could require surgery (yes, another surgery) — has significantly hampered his abilities. He had to settle for short to mid-range passes because he doesn’t have the arm strength to take shots downfield.
Every time he took warmup throws, you could see Newton grimacing. And when they got the ball back for a potential game-winning or game-tying drive, Newton struggled to get the ball to open receivers. Although they’re now 6-8, the Panthers aren’t officially eliminated from the playoffs. But they need a lot to happen to the teams ahead of them to have a chance. So, if Newton does indeed need surgery, Carolina would be wise to shut him down so he can have the procedure done and then have as much time as possible to recover and get ready for next season.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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