Saints pack a punch New Orleans of­fence gives it the edge in wild-card clash with New­ton and the Pan­thers

Sunday Sports - - SPORTS - DON BREN­NAN dbren­nan@post­media.com @sun­donib

NEW ORLEANS — Satur­day was Kings’ Day in these parts, with a Mardi Gras-themed fire­works dis­play over the Mis­sis­sippi River kick­ing off the Tri­cen­ten­nial Car­ni­val Sea­son.

Sun­day, the New Orleans Saints have some fire­works planned of their own.

It has been years since New Orleans has had the di­verse at­tack it brings into Sun­day’s NFC wild-card game at the Mercedes-Benz Su­per­dome against the Carolina Pan­thers. And that’s be­cause of their back­field.

The Saints boast an un­par­al­leled 1-2 punch in Alvin Ka­mara (1,554) and Mark In­gram (1,540, the first run­ning back team­mates in NFL his­tory to gain more than 1,500 scrim­mage yards. In­gram was fifth in rush­ing with 1,124 while Ka­mara’s split saw him do more dam­age (826 yards) af­ter catch­ing passes.

They also have Michael Thomas, one of the game’s most dy­namic young pass catch­ers who was sixth in NFL re­ceiv­ing yards with 104 hauls for 1,245 yards.

And then, of course, there’s Drew Brees.

The fu­ture Hall-of-Famer has never thrown fewer TD passes (23) or fewer yards (4,334) in his ca­reer, but he also has never been more ef­fi­cient than he was in 2017, when he set a NFL record by com­plet­ing 72% of his passes.

Brees has five of the nine 5,000 yard pass­ing sea­sons in league his­tory, and no other QB has more than one. But at 38 and in a re­duced role, he is as im­por­tant to the Saints as ever.

The con­fi­dence and calm­ing in­flu­ence his coaches and team­mates talk about was never more ev­i­dent than in Week 3, when the Saints played the Pan­thers.

With a 29-19 loss to the Vik­ings and a 6-20 loss to the Pa­tri­ots, the Saints were off to their fourth con­sec­u­tive 0-2 start. They went into Carolina in des­per­ate need of a vic­tory. Brees saw to it, throw­ing three touch­down passes and no in­ter­cep­tions while Cam New three in­ter­cep­tions and no touch­downs.

The Saints walked away with a 34-13 win that is now viewed as the turn­ing point in their 11-5 sea­son.

“I said be­fore I thought that two game road stretch, at Carolina and (a 20-0 beat­ing of the Dol­phins) against the Dol­phins) at Lon­don was im­por­tant,” coach Sean Pay­ton said on a con­fer­ence call with re­porters this week. “We dug our­selves into an early hole and we needed to gain some con­fi­dence, and hope­fully come away from those two games at .500, if not bet­ter. For­tu­nately we were able to win both and kind of get back to even wa­ter, and be­gin to string some wins to­gether.”

The con­fi­dence was the big thing.

“We knew what we had in this locker room,” re­ceiver Ted Ginn Jr. told NOLA.com/ The Times-Picayune. “We knew what type of work we’d put in (dur­ing) the off­sea­son and through camp, and we knew that (0-2 start) wasn’t us. And nine times out of 10, a lot of peo­ple lose their sea­son at the be­gin­ning of the year. We knew hat if we wanted to be who we wanted to be, and if we wanted to com­pete the way we wanted to com­pete, then we had to turn it around some way, some­how.”

In­cluded in that string was a sec­ond beat­ing of the Pan­thers, 31-21 in New Orleans on Dec. 13.

Pay­ton down­plays the reg­u­lar sea­son wins over Carolina now, re­mind­ing ev­ery­one that the play­offs are a sin­gle game elim­i­na­tion tour­na­ment, but the Saints have to be in the Pan­thers head, if only just a lit­tle bit.

The Pan­thers are a very good team, hav­ing also com­piled an 11-5 record, but they are the un­der­dogs in Sun­day’s clash for a rea­son. And it’s a role they are em­brac­ing.

“It’s crazy how peo­ple sit there and don’t want to give peo­ple chances or any­thing like that,” coach Ron Rivera said on the team’s web­site. “Well that’s fine. It how you look at it and go out there an you play. A lot of peo­ple didn’t have us picked (to be) here any­way. We were picked 6-10, 7-9, 8-8, last in the NFC South. You can look at it that ev­ery­thing we do from here on our is gravy then. It just de­pends on the ap­proach you want to take.”

Wide­out Rus­sell Shep­ard, who joined Carolina from Tampa in the spring, re­mem­bers the Pan­thers be­ing picked to fin­ish last in 2015, when they went on to fin­ish 15-1.

“I think this team is at its best when doubt is over­whelm­ing against them,” Shep­ard said on the Pan­thers web­site. “It’s no dif­fer­ent than when you cor­ner a dog — it’s go­ing to come out bit­ing.”

The truth is, ei­ther one of these teams could have a cham­pi­onship in their im­me­di­ate hori­zon. The Saints, who won the Su­per Bowl in 2010 by de­feat­ing the In­di­anapo­lis Colts 31-17, are anx­ious to get an­other ring. The Pan­thers, who lost Su­per Bowl game 24-10 two years ago to Den­ver and 32-29 to New Eng­land in 2004, are des­per­ate for their first.

But be­fore look­ing too far ahead, first they have to get past each other. And with Drew Brees, the Saints have the best chance to set off an­other cel­e­bra­tion in New Orleans on Sun­day.

GETTY IMAGES

Saints run­ning back Alvin Ka­mara car­ries the ball in a game against the Carolina Pan­thers in early De­cem­ber. Ka­mara ran and caught for 1,554 yards in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

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