Jason E. Miczek/Associated Press
The New Orleans Saints inched closer to a No. 1 seed with a 12-9 win over the Carolina Panthers.
Drew Brees threw for 203 yards in the low-scoring Monday night victory as the Saints moved to an NFL-best 12-2 on the season. They also finish the year 7-1 away from home after six straight years without a winning road record.
The Panthers saw their odds of reaching the playoffs shrink even more with their sixth straight loss, falling to 6-8 after a promising 6-2 start. Christian McCaffrey had 120 yards from scrimmage plus a passing touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to end the recent slide.
Improved Defense Keeps Saints in Super Bowl Conversation Despite Offensive Struggles
New Orleans had one of the top offenses in the NFL for a long stretch, scoring over 30 points nearly every game while averaging 427 total yards per game in the first 10 games.
There hasn’t been nearly as much success over the past month, with now four straight games under 400 yards from scrimmage, averaging 283 per contest.
In seven games from Weeks 4 to 11, the Saints punted only 10 total times. Thomas Morstead has been busier in the past four games with 14 punts.
Despite these struggles from the offense, the team keeps winning because of the outstanding play on the defensive side of the ball.
The squad was opportunistic with the ball, forcing two turnovers that likely took Carolina points off the board:
.@EliApple13 with the end zone PICK.
The @Saints take it right back before half.
📺: #NOvsCAR on ESPN https://t.co/C7l0RIHTXc
The ball is loose!
@TheVonnBell7 forces the D.J. Moore fumble 💥
📺: #NOvsCAR on ESPN https://t.co/yDSxCFeFgZ
Even without the turnovers, the Panthers found little room offensively and averaged just 4.3 yards per play.
As a result, Carolina became the sixth straight team held to under 20 points against New Orleans.
Mike Triplett of ESPN gave high praise to the defense:
Mike Triplett @MikeTriplett
Panthers have to punt after a sack by safety Vonn Bell, who has had a great night. Can Saints’ defense get in the MVP conversation?
This mindset likely wouldn’t have been expected earlier in the year when the defense was giving up 27.3 points per game through Week 9. However, players at all three levels have stepped up, and it has made New Orleans much more dangerous.
If the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl, they will not only have to outscore teams but also slow down elite offenses throughout the playoffs. This defense is now trustworthy enough to lead the squad to a championship.
Christian McCaffrey Is Only Reliable Player on Panthers Offense
There was little production from the Panthers offense on Monday, something that has become a trend over the past two months.
One person you cannot blame is McCaffrey, who finished with 53 rushing yards to go with eight catches for 67 receiving yards.
He also had arguably the most exciting play of the game, throwing a 50-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-down attempt:
Did that just happen?!
Christian McCaffrey is throwing TD passes! 😳
📺: #NOvsCAR on ESPN https://t.co/OuugE1sCyu
McCaffrey was going up against the No. 1 run defense in the NFL coming into the game but still fought hard for yards and made an impact in several different ways.
Unfortunately, few others on the offense have done much to help the team win.
Cam Newton hasn’t looked sharp lately—with his shoulder seemingly affecting his play—and he finished with just 131 passing yards and an interception. His potentially game-winning drive in the final two minutes never got any momentum.
Meanwhile, he hasn’t gotten a lot of help from either his offensive line or his receivers:
Josh Norris @JoshNorris
Panthers OL has declined more than Cam during the team’s 5 game losing streak
Geoff Schwartz @geoffschwartz
That’s just a pathetic route by Funchess. Got totally pushed off his spot. The throw wasn’t the best either but Funchess is supposed to be the guy. Even if the throw was longer, he wasn’t catching it
Bill Barnwell @billbarnwell
Throw was bad. 6-foot-4, 230-pound Devin Funchess got eliminated and nearly forced out of bounds before the pick by 6-foot-1, 201-pound Eli Apple. Also bad. A lot of things are bad with the Panthers.
D.J. Moore also fumbled at the end of one of the longest plays of the game.
In a unit with everything going wrong, the team at least has one reliable weapon in McCaffrey, who reached 100 yards from scrimmage in his seventh straight game.
There is a lot of uncertainty going forward, but the running back has exceeded expectations and is a building block going forward.
Mediocre Stretch Knocks Drew Brees Out of MVP Race
For most of the season, the NFL MVP race appeared to be a two-man battle between Brees and Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has put up the better numbers—currently leading the NFL with 4,543 passing yards and 45 passing touchdowns—but Brees had his own case as the more efficient player.
Considering the Saints quarterback began the year with 29 touchdowns and just two interceptions while guiding his team to a 10-1 record, he was a no-brainer candidate for the top individual award in the sport.
However, this efficiency hasn’t quite been there in the past three games with just two touchdowns and three interceptions.
His overall production has also been down in the recent stretch, falling nearly 1,000 yards behind Mahomes.
Putting the numbers aside, Brees’ “value” within the Saints has also declined with the rest of the team playing better as of late.
The running combination of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram is as reliable as last year, combining for 130 rushing yards against the Panthers. The defense has also been key to the recent success, especially Monday night.
Mahomes and even Philip Rivers have been more important to their teams and should each finish ahead of Brees in the MVP voting.
These two teams will play again in Week 17, but the Saints first have a difficult test at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16. The Panthers will host the Atlanta Falcons in a game that could decide their season.