Branisha Spincer, JRNOLA Sports
Entering today’s matchup between the (8-3) Saints and (8-3) Panthers, everyone was watching the highly anticipated matchup of the quarterbacks, and for good reason. Brees, a PHD of the game setting the NFL record books on fire, and Cam Newton, a rival threat with a history of rushing against the Black and Gold. Eleven weeks into the season, Drew Brees had earned the number 3 QB ranking in the league as captain of the 2nd ranked overall offense; complimented by standout seasons from Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Ted Ginn Jr., and Michael Thomas. In contrast, Cam Newton came into the Superdome looking to carry the burden of an injury plagued Panther offense on his shoulders.
The scene was set. Brees took to the turf of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a total of 3,029 yards and 16 touchdowns. Newton arrived in New Orleans with 2,400 yards passing and 464 yards rushing. After a week’s worth of reflection about how Cam didn’t run the ball in the two teams’ first meeting in Week 3, this week saw wide speculation about how his legs might make the difference.
The quarterback matchup everybody expected today took no time to materialize, with Brees and Newton getting straight to business on both of their opening drives, in the air and on the ground, putting points on the board, and firing up both sidelines. With weapons like Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Mark Ingram on his side of the ball, Brees was able to pass for 50 yards in his opening drive, capped off by a Kamara 2 yard touchdown run. The Panthers answered in similar fashion with a Newton drive of their own, ending in a 2 yard Stewart touchdown.
But the theater of the QB showdown took a backseat to teamwork in the second quarter, when Saints running back Mark Ingram busted out a 72 yard run, setting up a walk in 3 yard touchdown run. Ingram’s longest run of the season, and second longest of his career, caused the Dome to shake. The celebration could be felt in the press box, and primed the Saints defence for a 3-and-out hold on the following drive that resulted in a fumbled punt attempt and the kind of field position that Drew Brees drools over. With only 22 yards between him and the end zone, Brees put the Saints up 21-7 with a 10 yard pass to Michael Thomas in the end zone.
Unshaken by the 14 point deficit, Newton went into shotgun mode of his own, with less than 4:00 left in the first half, completing 4 straight passes, including a 21 yard touchdown to Christian McCaffrey to pull within 7 points going into the locker room at halftime.
Enjoying a 21-14 lead to start the second half, the story of the Saints domination over the Panthers became as much about team play as the Quarterback showdown. The Panthers decision to receive the ball to begin the second half didn’t go as the planned. The Saints opened the third quarter with an A.J. Klein sack of Cam Newton, delivering a crippling loss of 13 yards on 3rd and 2, setting the tone for the 2nd half.
Brees’ first possession was reminiscent of the first half, as he drove 67 yards in 8 plays. Spreading the ball around to Ingram, Ginn, Thomas and even Snead, who racked up only his second catch of the season, Brees put the final touches of the drive in the hands of Kamara, for a 20 yard touchdown run, his second of the day. It was this type of teamwork that set the tone for the Saints second half, where the defense and special teams shined bright under the lights of the Superdome. While the Saints managed to put up only 3 points in the 4th Quarter off the foot of Will Lutz, it was defence that rose to the occasion, protecting a 3 possession lead with 2 sacks, a 4th down stop of the Panthers inside the red zone, and a special teams fumbled punt recovery.
For the second time this season the Saints ended the Panthers winning streaks sending them home with an important divisional loss. This is the first time since 2012 that the Saints have won two back to back games against the Panthers.
After 12 games, the Saints look to be well prepared to take on back to back NFC South opponents as the playoff chase heats up. Thursday’s away game in Atlanta will be the next test, the first of two upcoming showdowns with the rival Falcons. The Saints proved that they are capable to take on the pressure today in the game against the Panthers, as they secured the NFC South’s number one spot. The Saints are poised to maintain that top spot, as long as they can handle all the divisional pressure that comes with it.