Saints defend turf, knock off Panthers
NEW ORLEANS - Saints All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan grinned playfully as he glanced up at a bottle of red wine on the top shelf of his locker and asked if anyone knew Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s address.
A bottle with the name “Jordan” on the label - even if it isn’t made by the Saints star’s family - might be the last thing Newton wants right now.
Drew Brees and his receiving corps came through when Carolina stifled New Orleans’ prolific backfield, and a relentless Jordan spearheaded a late defensive stand to seal a 31-26 NFC wild-card round victory Sunday.
“You can’t be more happy about the way we played in terms of how we finished the game,” Jordan said. “We almost let them back in the game, but here I am standing as winner. Here I am, as a Cam Jordan, sending Cam Newton a bottle of Jordan wine.”
Brees passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns, but one more completion would have considerably lowered the stress level on the Saints’ sideline. Coach Sean Payton kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-short with two minutes remaining and Carolina out of timeouts, hoping for one more first down that would have allowed New Orleans to run out the clock.
But Brees couldn’t find an open receiver, was flushed out of the pocket, and decided his best option was to throw it up for grabs. The ball was intercepted by safety Mike Adams, which turned out better for New Orleans than an incompletion because it meant the Panthers had to start from their 31 instead of midfield.
Still, Newton completed three straight passes to move the Panthers to the Saints’ 26-yard line with 58 seconds left before New Orleans’ resistance stiffened.
“I’m frustrated,” Newton said. “I hate that I couldn’t do enough to get a win today for a lot of guys that I think so highly of. I just have to be better.”
The comeback bid began to fizzle when Jordan induced an intentional grounding penalty on Newton, making it third-and-25 on the Saints 34 and a requiring 10-second runoff that left 24 seconds on the clock.
After an incompletion in the end zone, Vonn Bell sacked Newton on a safety blitz, ensuring the Saints (12-5) swept all three meetings with Carolina (11-6) this season, in addition to winning the first postseason game they’ve played in four seasons.
“The coaches wanted to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands fast,” Bell said. “They dialed it up, and I said, ‘Go make a play.’ ”
Brees’ touchdowns went for 80 yards to Ted Ginn Jr. and 9 yards to tight end Josh Hill. Fullback Zach Line and running back Alvin Kamara each ran for short TDs, the latter set up by Michael Thomas’ 46-yard reception.
“What we’ve shown offensively is we have a lot of ways to be effective,” Brees said, mentioning clutch first-down catches by Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead in addition to the big plays by Ginn and Thomas. “The ball was spread around quite a bit, and guys were making plays when they had the chances.”
Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards on a day when the Saints needed the passing game to compensate for a ground game that struggled to get going. Thomas said when he noticed the Panthers playing with one safety deep instead of their usual two, “you’re licking your chops with a quarterback like Drew Brees and the talent we have. We knew what we had to do, and it was on the receivers.”
Ginn, a former Panthers receiver, celebrated the sweep of his former team by holding up a broom in the locker room.
Helped by the presence of tight end Greg Olsen - who did not play in the teams’ previous two meetings - Newton marched Carolina into Saints territory more often than not. But the Panthers stalled four times inside the New Orleans 25 in the first three quarters. They settled for four field-goal attempts on those drives, one of which Graham Gano missed from 25 yards.
Jordan called the Saints’ red-zone stops “huge.”
“Had half of those been touchdowns, we’d be sitting in a different spot,” Jordan said.
Newton finished 24-of-40 passing for 349 yards and two touchdowns, including a 56-yard scoring strike to Christian McCaffrey that pulled the Panthers within five points with 4:09 left.
But Newton also was sacked four times, once each by Bell, Jordan, Jonathan Freeney, and David Onyemata. The sack by Onyemata came as Newton tried to spin away from Tyeler Davison and slammed his head into Onyemata’s chest. Newton appeared to be checked for a concussion but missed only one play.