With about five minutes left Sunday, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton pump-faked in the pocket, tucked the ball and took off for a weaving, 32-yard run that was a thing of beauty.
It was also too little too late.
In a battle for first place in the NFC South, the Saints looked like thoroughbreds racing all over the artificial turf in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And the Panthers too often appeared more like plodders.
With running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram breaking tackles and breaking off long runs, the Saints did what they usually do in the dome against Carolina – run up a lot of yards and points and dare the Panthers to keep up.
They couldn’t, falling 31-21 on a day when all three phases had a big hand in the defeat.
New Orleans (9-3) swept the season series and moved a game ahead of the Panthers (8-4), who had their four-game winning streak snapped.
And practically speaking, it’s really more like two-game cushion because of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Panthers’ second-ranked defense gave up 400 yards, the second-most allowed this season. And a lot of that yardage came in chunks: New Orleans had seven plays of 20 yards or longer, with Kamara contributing two of them.
The Panthers managed only four such plays and two came on their final possession – Newton’s scramble and his 24-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess.
“They had that big chunk from Cam in the fourth quarter scrambling. Clearly he’s elite at what he does, extending plays,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We knew that going in and we shut that down the first half. We got up and we never really released our grip.”
Panthers receiver Russell Shepard said it’s tough to win a shootout against Saints quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton. And it’s gotten a lot tougher now that New Orleans finally has a legitimate defense.
“Hall of Fame quarterback, possibly a Hall of Fame coach, you’ve got to be able to match them point for point. You’ve got to be able to create turnovers (and) play solid, solid football,” Shepard said.
“They’ve gotten away with being a very successful organization without having the type of defense that they have now. That defense is playing a lot better,” he added. “We feel we’re the better team. We just made too many key mistakes.”
The mistakes included a lot of drops – by everybody. Receivers dropped passes, cornerback Daryl Worley dropped an interception. Even punter Michael Palardy dropped the ball to give the Saints a short field in the first half.
Offensively, the Panthers had too many empty possessions.
After a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on their first series, the next four possessions were all 3-and-outs, the last of which was Palardy’s mishandle.
The Panthers only had one big play in the first half – Christian McCaffrey’s 21-yard touchdown catch.
“They did a pretty good putting a net over us,” Shepard said. “We have to break tackles. We have to make the plays underneath and make them go the distance, whether it was a run or a short pass. They did a good job of containing us.”
Shepard said the Saints dropped their linebackers, played their safeties high and had their cornerbacks press the receivers to slow them down on their routes.
The strategy was particularly successful in slowing Funchess, whose first catch did not come until late in the third quarter.
Funchess said his slow start had nothing to do with the Saints’ scheme.
“Nothing,” he said when asked what the Saints had done to stop him. “They didn’t do a thing.”
Carolina’s defensive players offered a similar refrain when discussing the Saints’ success.
While Brees had a solid game (25-of-34 for 269 yards and a TD), his running backs were the story.
Kamara, who looks like a shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year, put up 122 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns, while Ingram had a 72-yard run that was the longest given up by the Panthers this year.
Kamara wasn’t a huge factor in the Saints’ win in Charlotte in Week 3, when they still had Adrian Peterson on the roster. But he was big Sunday, driving through linebacker Shaq Thompson on his first touchdown and stepping out of safety Kurt Coleman’s tackle on his second score.
“He’s a stronger runner than I expected,” Coleman said. “He’s going to be a good running back in this league.”
Safety Mike Adams said most of the Panthers’ defensive issues were self-inflicted.
“I don’t know how many explosive plays they had, but that was on us. It was nothing they did special,” Adams said. “We’ve got to get better as a group and as a defense. Our standard is high. … Today we didn’t play to our standard.”
As a result, the Panthers might find themselves back in New Orleans again in the playoffs. Considering they’ve given up 38, 41 and 31 points in their last three games in the Superdome, that scenario seems less than ideal.
But Shepard said the Panthers would love another crack at the Saints.
“I think right now that’s what we want,” he said. “We want to play them again.”
If there is a next time, the Panthers have to figure out a way to keep up the pace.