It certainly felt like the holiday season had started Thursday night, what with all the gifts being thrown around during the Carolina Panthers’ 23-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
But where the Saints offense and Panthers defense were generous in handing opportunity to Cam Newton and the Carolina offense, the latter responded half-heartedly, squandering field position and even presenting the Saints with the dreaded re-gift, at times.
Mario Addison first wrapped a bow on a big ol’ sack and strip of Drew Brees during the Saints’ first drive of the game, giving the Panthers the ball back on the New Orleans 32.
Newton and the Panthers rumbled and stumbled to the New Orleans 12 before having to send out the kicking team on fourth down.
Then it was the Saints’ turn to be generous, gifting the Panthers a fresh set of downs on a roughing the kicker call after Kenny Vaccaro hit Graham Gano as he sent a 30-yarder through the uprights.
Those too were squandered and, all total, Carolina settled for three points (on a field goal farther back than the first one) after 11 plays went just 18 yards.
“We kicked three field goals when we had opportunities,” coach Ron Rivera said after the game. “The very first time, we get down there and we make a couple mistakes. … We give up a sack, a tackle for loss and we just can’t do that.”
Brees got hot with a near-perfect drive in which he was 7 of 7 for 42 yards, and then it was safety Kurt Coleman’s turn to dole out the present via prodigious presence. His third-down hit on Colby Fleener forced a fumble, which was recovered by Fleener a yard shy of a first down. The Saints had to kick a field goal.
After that, the Panthers punted.
Coleman picked off Brees in the second quarter with a tremendous read on a ball meant for Fleener, and finally the Panthers responded with some life as Jonathan Stewart was stuffed, then dove over the pile to score.
A bobble-out-of-bounds on the kickoff gave the Saints’ offense miserable field position, and the Panthers’ defense re-gifted it back in new wapping to Newton, who took over a yard short of New Orleans territory …
… And responded with an overthrow, a short run and a drop to settle for another three points.
Then, perhaps the biggest gift-wrapped box of rocks of all …
Vernon Butler blocked a Saints field goal attempt, and linebacker Luke Kuechly scooped it up and sprinted to the end zone. But about 5 yards behind him, rookie corner James Bradberry shoved the New Orleans kicker and was flagged, bringing back the touchdown and about half of Kuechly’s run.
Rivera said he didn’t see it, so had no comment after the game.
Did he see the replay?
Newton rallied and fired a 40-yard rocket to Ted Ginn Jr. as he streaked into the end zone. The original incomplete pass ruling was overturned after review – another present for the Panthers, who held a 17-point halftime lead.
Sitting on just a three-point lead with less than three minutes to play, Carolina held.
It was by doing just enough as Brees battled back with 17 fourth-quarter points. Like the kid in December who is good only when the Elf on the Shelf is watching.
Because the Panthers’ offense ultimately squeaked by the Saints with just 50 rushing yards and 173 passing yards, an average gain of 3.6 yards per play. They had 17 first downs, 12 of which were in the first half. They were outscored 17-3 in the second half.
“Obviously in the fourth quarter we didn’t move the ball at all,” said tight end Greg Olsen. “Prior to that we were moving the ball good. That 25, 30-yard line seems to be a bit of a sticking point now, and we’ve got to get it addressed.”
All told, between the penalty and the field goals, they left 15 points on the field.
“We are struggling right now, in the red zone,” said Olsen. “We got the one third down conversion there and (Stewart) put it in; that was our only real drive for touchdown. The other touchdown was Teddy’s long pass.
“We have got to be better. There is no mistaking that. We are fortunate that the defense did such a good job holding a pretty explosive offense to, I think it was a season low, I imagine. Credit to them. We didn’t do enough offensively to extend the lead like we could have.”
“No,” added Rivera when asked if he felt his offense used what his defense gifted them.
“I think, again, when we get down to the red zone we need to score touchdowns. We appreciate the points, but we need to score touchdowns. Especially against teams like this. Especially against Drew Brees.”
But hey, they avoided the coal.