For the first three quarters, the New Orleans Saints’ defense managed to keep the Carolina Panthers out of the end zone Sunday evening at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And then, with the season on the line, the defense rose up to keep the Panthers from scoring the touchdown they had to have in the end.
Saints strong safety Vonn Bell sacked Carolina quarterback Cam Newton with 6 seconds left in the game to lock down a 31-26 victory in the Wild Card round of the National Football League playoffs before a delirious and predominantly pro-Saints crowd of 73,186.
The play capped an effort that allowed the Saints (12-5) to sweep the Panthers (11-6) this season. New Orleans took both games of the home-and-home regular-season series with its National Football Conference South Division rivals before notching its first playoff victory in four years.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times, especially a team that is as prideful as the Panthers,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “There’s no better feeling.”
With the victory, the fourth-seeded Saints will head to Minneapolis, Minn., Sunday to visit the second-seeded Minnesota Vikings in a NFC Divisional Playoff game.
Kickoff is set for 3:40 p.m. at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings (13-3), who received a first-round bye in the playoffs, traveled to New Orleans to open the season on Sept. 11 defeated the Saints 29-19.
“Night and day,” Brees said. “Completely different situation now.”
The Saints nearly didn’t get there, having to hold off a Carolina team that refused to go away and slugged it out with New Orleans in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers stifled the Saints’ ground game, holding an attack that had ranked fifth in the NFL at 129.4 yards a game to 41 yards.
But Brees completed 23-of-33 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Receiver Michael Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. had four catches for 115 yards and a touchdown.
“I think we’ve proved that we can beat you in a lot of different ways,” Brees said. “It was very clear that they were determined to play (against) the run, so there were probably going to be some plays on the outside.”
New Orleans led 24-12 heading into the final 15 minutes of the game, but Newton got the Panthers within five points with a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 12:47 left in the game.
After swapping scoreless possessions, Carolina’s chances seemed all-but-doomed after a savage sack by defensive tackles Tyler Davison and David Onyemata knocked Newton loopy and out of the game.
The Saints then drove 62 yards to pad their lead, including a huge, 46-yard pass from Brees to Thomas that set the Saints up first-and-goal.
Alvin Kamara capped the march with a 2-yard run that left the Saints ahead 31-19 with 5:08 to play.
But Newton returned with a vengeance, needing just three plays to whirl the Panthers 75 yards and back nipping at the Saints’ heels. Newton found running back Chris McCaffrey on a relatively shallow crossing route and the speedy rookie did the rest, racing 56 yards for a touchdown that pulled the Panthers back within five points with 4:09 to play.
“(The Panthers) were going to be a tough out…and we knew it was going to be a challenge,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
And got even more challenging when the Saints failed to convert a fourth-and-2 gamble at the Panthers’ 47-yard line.
The Saints were able to bleed the Panthers of their timeouts on the drive, but after the two-minute warning, Brees’ desperate pass was intercepted downfield at the 31-yard line by Carolina strong safety Mike Adams.
That left the Panthers with 1:51 on the clock and 69 yards to cover if they were to pull out the win.
Newton, who would complete 24-of-40 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns, gave it his best before making a critical mistake in the waning seconds.
Newton completed passes for 17 yards to receiver Devin Funchess and 21 yards to receiver Kaelin Clay that helped put the Panthers at the Saints’ 26-yard line with 58 seconds to play.
A defensive holding call on the Saints gave Carolina a first-and-10 from the 21-yard line with 46 seconds left in the game.
After an incompletion, Newton was flagged for intentional grounding on second down, which not only cost the Panthers a down and 13 lost yards, but since the violation occurred in the game’s final moments, Carolina lost 10 seconds from the game clock.
With 19 seconds left and the ball at the 34-yard line, Newton threw incomplete on third down, and on Carolina’s final snap, Bell blitzed through an alley between left guard and left tackle to corral Newton before his receivers had a chance to get near the end zone. Defensive end Cameron Jordan then joined Bell in bring Newton to the ground.
“Disappointment,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “We had an opportunity. I like what we were doing down the stretch and I thought we had a chance to score on that last drive.
“I feel like it was kind of taken away from us. That’s a tough one to handle.”
Carolina moved the ball fairly effectively most of the day. But four red zone trips in the first three quarters resulted in just three field goals.
Graham Gano, who had made 29 of 30 field goals during the regular season, missed a 25-yard chip shot after Carolina’s opening possession, but then proceeded to knock through field goals of 27 yards, 39 yards, 58 yards and 29 yards for all the Panthers points before the fourth quarter.
“It’s better to hold them to three rather than six,” Bell said. “We held them in the red zone and we won the game.”
With its running game stalled, the Saints turned to Brees and he delivered.
First, Brees connected with Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter that brought a simmering Superdome crowd to full boil.
It was the longest play from scrimmage by the Saints this season, and the first playoff touchdown for Ginn, who was facing his former teammates.
“That was huge,’ Brees said. “They stopped us on our first two drives, and then for us to come up with that big play, I think it blew the whole thing wide open.
“I think it broke the seal for us offensively, and, obviously, got the crowd rolling.”
Gano’s first successful field goal brought the Panthers within 7-3, but Brees capped a 75-yard drive in the second quarter with a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Hill.
After another Gano field goal made the score 14-6, fullback Zach Line scored on 1-yard run to put the Saints up 21-6.
But Gano’s long field goal on the last play of the first half got the Panthers within 21-9 at the break.
“The first 12 points were field goals, and that, ultimately, is a significant part of why we won this game,” Payton said.
As was Brees.
“I’ve been telling you all year that don’t sleep on Drew,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said. “If you are going to stack the box, try to stop the run, and take us (running backs) out of the game, then he is going to hurt you.
“We have been telling you that he is best quarterback in the league. He is still Drew Brees.”