The New Orleans Saints strengthened their hold on first place in the NFC South on Sunday when they beat Carolina and Atlanta lost to Minnesota.
In a few days, the Saints will have a chance to strengthen it further. At 9-3, they have a two-game lead on the Panthers (8-4) thanks to having swept the season series.
New Orleans has a two-game lead on the Falcons (7-5), whom they visit on Thursday night and play again 17 days later.
It's a quick turnaround for the Saints, who are 3-0 in divisional games.
Like the Falcons, the Saints will try and do in three days what it usually has six days to do.
"I think it's difficult," head coach Sean Payton said Monday. "We'll try and keep them off their feet today, recover, rest. Tomorrow we'll have a walk-through and Wednesday we'll have a walk-through. That's it really."
The biggest issue for the players is recovery time, especially after being beat up over the course of 12 games in 13 weeks.
"Everything's accelerated," running back Mark Ingram II said. "You have to recover quicker and have a solid game plan that everybody's familiar with (that allows) guys to play fast and know their assignments."
Two big plays by the Saints' special teams helped set up 10 points by the offense in the 31-21 victory over the Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Panthers punter Michael Palardy dropped the ball after receiving a snap, picked it up, scrambled and threw an incomplete pass. The mistake gave New Orleans the ball at the Carolina 31 and six plays later Drew Brees threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas that gave the Saints a 21-7 second-quarter lead. Midway through the fourth quarter, Kaelin Clay fumbled a punt and Craig Robertson recovered for New Orleans at the Panthers 47, leading to a Wil Lutz field goal and a 31-14 lead.
"We had two game-changing plays," Payton said.
The absence of tight end Coby Fleener caused some personnel adjustments for the Saints, who use three tight ends with regularity. Fleener, who went on injured reserve Saturday because of a concussion, is the team's best receiving tight end so his absence led to Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill being more involved in the passing game. Hoomanawanui caught one pass for zero yards and Hill caught one pass for 8 yards, but lost a fumble that led to a Carolina touchdown.
WR Michael Thomas has been one of the most productive pass catchers in the league in terms of receptions and yards. He entered Sunday's game with 70 catches for 805 yards, but he had not caught a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games. That drought ended with a 10-yard scoring pass from Drew Brees to Thomas, who finished with five catches for 70 yards.
QB Taysom Hill isn't someone the Saints normally want to see in a game. If he ever takes a snap at quarterback, it probably means something bad has happened to Brees and No. 2 quarterback Chase Daniel. But New Orleans was pleased to see Hill participating in Sunday's game as he took on a new role on special teams and made two tackles. "I think he did a good job, especially bringing some juice to the special teams," head coach Sean Payton said. "He can run, he has size. It was refreshing."\
REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS
PASSING OFFENSE: B
The Saints didn't have to do a whole lot through the air because the running game was working and the defense and special teams were effective as well. Still, Brees threw the scoring pass to Michael Thomas and was effective overall, though he was sacked twice a week after being sacked a season-worst three times against the Rams.
RUSHING OFFENSE: A
Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara both had big games, which is becoming commonplace. Ingram had a 72-yard run that set up his 2-yard touchdown and Kamara had two scoring runs even though starting LT Terron Armstead was active but did not play because of a thigh injury.
PASS DEFENSE: A
CB Marshon Lattimore missed his second consecutive game because of an ankle injury, but the other starting corner, Ken Crawley (abdomen), returned after a one-game absence and made a difference. He had two pass break-ups, but he gave up a late touchdown pass.
RUSH DEFENSE: A
The Saints contained the Panthers running game as Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffery and Cam Newton all had limited impact on the ground. As a team, the Panthers ran just 23 times for 112 yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus
The botched punt and the punt recovery on the punt return were big, but Lutz's missed field goal prevented New Orleans from taking a 17-point lead in the third quarter. P Thomas Morstead was solid and the return and coverage units were fine.
Sean Payton set the tone for the game when he decided to go on fourth-and-goal from the 2 on the first possession. Kamara responded with a touchdown run and the Saints never trailed. The Panthers responded with a tying touchdown on the next possession but after that Dennis Allen's defense kept the Panthers under control, allowing just a 45-yard touchdown drive after a punt and late score with a three-score lead.
Copyright © 2017 TTWN Media Networks LLC Photo: Getty Images