2018-01-07 22:04:02
On Pro Football: In Win Over Panthers, Saints Turn Back to Drew Brees to Lead

22:04, January 07 164 0

NEW ORLEANS — One of the N.F.L.’s more incontrovertible contentions, supported by more than a decade of empirical evidence, is that good things tend to happen to the New Orleans Saints when the football leaves Drew Brees’s hand.

That hand has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than anyone else who has played for the Saints, elevating them to prominence and delivering a Super Bowl. This season, that hand threw the second-fewest passes since Brees arrived in New Orleans, and instead thrust the ball over and over again into the bellies of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the running backs responsible for transforming the Saints’ identity.

The Saints have transitioned from a team that depends on Brees to a team that benefits from his talent, but in no way does that diminish his ability to power them to victory. In outlasting the Carolina Panthers for the third time this season with a 31-26 win amid the din of the Superdome on Sunday, Brees reaffirmed his primacy, throwing for 376 yards and two touchdowns.

His touch on the deep ball was evident on an 80-yard scoring pass to Ted Ginn Jr., his zip on the intermediate routes found streaking receivers, and his precision in tight spaces — he could probably fling a toothpick into a keyhole — befuddled Carolina’s secondary.

His Carolina counterpart, Cam Newton, however, matched him, and that nearly sunk the Saints. Newton drove the Panthers to two fourth-quarter touchdowns — one coming the series after he was checked for a concussion, and cleared, after absorbing a punishing hit that left him stumbling near his sideline. And he almost led them to a third before he was sacked on 4th-and-23 at his own 34, sealing a New Orleans win.

But for the Saints’ joy ride to continue, they will likely need more balance. Carolina fulfilled its vow to stifle Ingram and Kamara, limiting them to 45 combined rushing yards. Their three other lowest rushing performances came in losses, including in the season opener at Minnesota, where the Saints are headed next, to face the second-seeded Vikings in the divisional round next Sunday.

While Brees merely jogged onto the field before the game, Newton ran out of the tunnel with his arms extended, as if flying, and then leapt to chest-bump a teammate.

He harnessed that energy and used it to guide Carolina along three lengthy drives that stalled in the end zone but succeeded in keeping the ball away from Brees. Three times in the first three quarters, the Panthers drove inside the New Orleans 10-yard line, and three times they attempted field goals.

The first, a 26-yarder by kicker Graham Gano, drifted wide, and two plays later Brees found Ginn streaking down the middle for a touchdown that put New Orleans up by 7-0.

In the first half, Brees threw for 230 yards — or, more than he did in three games this season, all victories. In this, his 12th season with the Saints, Brees threw for the fewest yards and produced the fewest touchdown passes since he arrived as a free agent in 2006 as New Orleans shifted into an all-weather offense. He also set an N.F.L. season record by completing 72 percent of his passes.

“If you take away five, seven, ten attempts a game and those are going to the run game,” Brees said last week, “that means you are doing something right in the run game.”

The Saints normally do. Kamara and Ingram powered them like no previous running-back tandem had, becoming the first in league history to each gain at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and New Orleans led the N.F.L. with 23 rushing touchdowns.

By halftime, though, the Saints had rushed just seven times for 14 yards, struggling to advance against a Carolina defense that had allowed its most yards all season to New Orleans in the teams’ two previous meetings. Its stinginess on Sunday helped Carolina draw close and stay there, twice cutting the Saints’ lead to 5 points in the fourth quarter, including with 4 minutes 9 seconds remaining after Christian McCaffrey turned a short pass into a 56-yard touchdown.

Those were the final points scored, and when the Saints secured victory by finally bringing down Newton in the closing seconds, they sprinted across the field.

Not since the Giants in 2011 has an N.F.C. team seeded worse than second reached the Super Bowl, and in a conference diluted by the weakened No. 1-seeded Eagles, the Saints are a strong contender. And no wonder: They have the best quarterback in the bracket.