The Carolina Panthers got Drew Breesed Sunday, ending their season after a single playoff game.
Brees, a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, was seldom pressured by the Panthers’ pass rush, and generally picked apart the Carolina secondary in a 31-26 victory at the Superdome. The Panthers finished their season 11-6. The Saints advance to a divisional-round trip to play the Minnesota Vikings.
The Saints led 21-9 at halftime, and 24-12 heading into the fourth quarter. Brees’s long throw off a rollout to wide receiver Michael Thomas set up what proved to be the decisive touchdown.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was briefly knocked out of the game with about 8 1/2 minutes left, on a sack by Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata. The play lost 10 yards, and Newton went to the sideline, replaced by backup Derek Anderson.
Newton was evaluated for a possible concussion. He was cleared to play.
Down five, the Panthers failed to convert a first down, and had to punt to the Saints, who took over at their own 38 with just more than eight minutes left.
Brees rolled out to his right and found Thomas far downfield for another red-zone possession. Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara ran it in from 2 yards out.
In the ensuing Panthers possession, Newton rolled to his left, and threw a long ball to Kaelin Clay. The pass was incomplete, but the Saints’ Ken Crawley was called for pass interference. However, Panthers lineman Trai Turner was also flagged for holding, offsetting that penalty.
The Panthers still ended up scoring on that possession. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey had a 56-yard catch-and-run into the end zone with 4:09 left to trail 31-26. That was McCaffrey’s longest gain — rushing or receiving — this season.
Panthers safety Mike Adams intercepted Brees with 1:51 left, giving Carolina possession on its own 31 yard line. Newton immediately found Devin Funchess for 19 yards to push the ball to midfield. Newton’s pass to Clay advanced the ball to the 26, then a defensive holding moved it to the 21.
But then Newton was called for intentional grounding, moving the ball back to the 34 with 34 seconds remaining. The penalty meant 10 seconds had to be run off the game clock to 24.
Newton was sacked on Carolina’s final play, a 17-yard loss.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, much of whose season was sidetracked by injury, made two huge plays leading to Carolina’s first touchdown in the fourth quarter. Olsen got wide open near the right sideline to get the Panthers to the red zone, then worked himself free in the end zone, as Carolina finally didn’t settle for a field goal.
The first half was full of frustration for the Panthers, in that they retained possession for long stretches without converting drives into anything more than field-goal tries. Placekicker Graham Gano could have given the Panthers an early lead, but he missed a 25-yard field goal, just his second missed field goal this season. That was in the first quarter, after the Panthers had driven all the way from their own 30-yard line to the Saints 7.
Newton failed to complete a pass to Clay on third-and-2, which sent Gano out for the failed field-goal try. The Panthers had held the ball for more than eight minutes, in what was then a scoreless game.
It wasn’t scoreless for long. Two plays later, Brees hit ex-Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who got behind Panthers cornerback James Bradberry for an 80-yard touchdown. Speed to beat opposing defenses has been a weakness for the Panthers most of this season.
Three who mattered
Brees: His passer rating in the first half (151.4) was the highest for any player (with at least 10 attempts) since Kurt Warner in the 2008 NFC Championship Game (156).
Ginn.: He reminded his former team that the Panthers have yet to replace his downfield speed, with that long touchdown catch-and-run.
Olsen: His touchdown catch, combined with another huge reception on that possession, gave back life to the Panthers in the second half.
▪ You have to wonder if Panthers defensive lineman Charles Johnson would have played this season, had he been able to predict the future: Zero sacks, a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, and he was left inactive for Sunday’s playoff game.
▪ So who would have guessed that Graham Gano, who has had such a reliable season, would miss his second field goal indoors? If a team controls possession for more than eight minutes, it feels absurd to walk away with no points.
▪ And then Gano makes from 58 yards at the end of the first half. That was a postseason field-goal record for the Panthers; John Kasay had a 52-yarder back in the day.
▪ Time of possession is football’s oddest stat, in that it can mean everything or nothing. In the first half, it meant nothing, with the Panthers holding the ball for 19 1/2 minutes, roughly nine minutes longer than the team that dominated the half.
▪ It took until midway through the third quarter for the Panthers pass rush to have any effect, when Brees was called for intentional grounding, forcing the Saints to attempt a field goal (successfully).
▪ The Panthers had never lost in the wild-card round before Sunday. They previously beat the Arizona Cardinals (2014), New York Giants (2005) and Dallas Cowboys (2003).
▪ When the bottom-seed Falcons beat the Rams in Los Angeles Saturday, the Panthers and Saints knew not only that the winner would play in Minnesota, but when (Jan. 14, 4:40 p.m.)
▪ The Saints treated the pregame like a college homecoming game, introducing a couple dozen former players a half-hour before kickoff. Nice touch to rev up the crowd.
They said it
“... they should be proud of where we got to because nobody gave us a chance. ... I personally felt they epitomized what we’re all about as a football team..” — Panthers coach Ron Rivera, when asked what he told his team in the locker room after the loss.
“We wanted it more. I mean they’ve been to their Super Bowl, let ‘em go to another one next year. We want our run.” — Cameron Jordan, Saints All-Pro defensive end