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