There were dozens of players on the field on both sides Sunday in New Orleans’ 31-26 playoff win over Carolina which ended the Panthers’ season, but these 10 affected the game the most.
Drew Brees: It is no surprise when Brees throws the ball beautifully, it is only a surprise when he doesn’t. For the third time this season, the 38-year-old quarterback eviscerated the Panthers secondary. If Brees keeps playing like that, the Saints are a Super Bowl threat. He was the best player on the field and threw for 376 yards on a day where the Panthers gave him lots of opportunities by concentrating on stopping the run.
Cam Newton: It wasn’t really a fair fight between Brees and Newton, because Newton once again had to throw to a mediocre group of wide receivers that simply doesn’t look NFL-ready too often. That is partly because of untimely injuries but partly because of a front office that simply never gave Newton a good enough crop of targets this year.
Nevertheless, Newton played remarkably well for much of the game, throwing for 349 yards himself. But he couldn’t get his team into the end zone quite often enough, including on a final game-winning drive opportunity that was undone by a controversial intentional-grounding call. Newton was hurt once in the fourth quarter but returned; coach Ron Rivera said he got poked in the eye.
Kaelin Clay: Newton threw an absolute dart into Clay’s arms on Carolina’s second possession on third-and-2 from the 7. Yes, a defender was applying pressure to Clay, but a good receiver holds onto that one and makes it 7-0. Instead, the young Panthers wide receiver dropped it, and it turned out Carolina never led.
Ted Ginn Jr.: Ginn has taken special pleasure in haunting his old team this season, and he was insidious in this game. Ginn breaking free for an 80-yard touchdown broke the Saints out of a brief case of the offensive doldrums – they had punted quickly on their first two possessions – and turned the game on its axis. He later sported a broom in the New Orleans locker room, representing the Saints’ three-game sweep of Carolina this season.
Graham Gano: A 25-yard field-goal miss in a playoff game is inexcusable – and almost incomprehensible for a kicker who had not missed from inside 50 yards the entire season.
Then again, Gano made a 58-yarder at the end of the first half, and not a lot of NFL kickers make that one. So those two were probably a wash. Gano had a very eventful day that ultimately included four field goals and 14 of the Panthers’ 26 points – although the Panthers used him far too much on field goals and not enough on extra points.
Michael Thomas: Because the Saints have a number of offensive stars in the backfield, Thomas flies under the radar sometimes. He shouldn’t. He’s a far better receiver than anything the Panthers have. Sure-handed and versatile, Thomas had numerous huge catches and ended up with a game-high 131 yards receiving.
Luke Kuechly: The middle linebacker played a part in the Panthers mostly shutting down the New Orleans running game – Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram were not the huge factors they were expected to be as the Saints rushed 22 times for only 41 yards.
But Kuechly and his mates could not shut down the Saints passing game, as Brees threw for a staggering 376 yards. After the game, Kuechly got teary-eyed later when he was describing how he had wanted to send Panthers owner Jerry Richardson out with a better ending than this.
Greg Olsen: The Panthers tight end (seven catches, 104 yards) was the one ultra-reliable target Newton had and was responsible for many of the big plays that Carolina made in the passing game. Olsen finally got the Panthers into the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter that cut the New Orleans lead to 24-19.
Christian McCaffrey: McCaffrey’s startling 56-yard reception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter was by far his longest play of the season and was exactly the sort of play envisioned for him when he was drafted No. 8 overall. On that play and really overall on this day, McCaffrey “out-Kamara-ed” Alvin Kamara, as McCaffrey ended up with 101 yards receiving compared with Kamara’s 10.
Tony Corrente: No, he’s not a player, but he is a head referee that many Panthers fans will remember after this one. It was Corrente’s crew that flagged Newton for intentional grounding on Carolina’s final drive, turning what would have been third-and-10 from the New Orleans 21 with 34 seconds left to third-and-23 from the Saints 34 with 24 seconds left. Olsen said later in the locker room that he heard several of the other officials trying to talk Corrente out of this call, but that Corrente stuck with it despite their protests.