The New Orleans Saints opened the playoffs by beating a team they had beaten twice already, topping the Carolina Panthers, 31-26, in a wild-card playoff game on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Next, they will be on the other side of the rematch when they travel to Minnesota to play the Vikings in a divisional playoff game on Sunday.
Minnesota beat New Orleans, 29-19, in the season opener in Minneapolis.
Much has changed since early September, especially for the Saints, who followed that opener with a 36-20 loss to New England. After the 0-2 start, they won eight consecutive games and wound up as NFC South champions.
And much changed in the third meeting with the Panthers.
The Saints have utilized the one-two tandem of running backs Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara to lead the offense this season, but on Sunday their contributions were negligible, and it was Drew Brees' passing that carried the offense.
This season, the defense has thrived on takeaways, but the Panthers didn't give the ball away once. Instead it was the defense's ability to stiffen when Carolina reached scoring range that made the difference.
"I thought the red-zone stops for our defense were huge," head coach Sean Payton said Monday. "We hit some big plays in the passing game. We had a lot of loaded fronts and I thought we took advantage of that."
It will be difficult for the Saints to defeat the No. 2 seed Vikings if Ingram and Kamara aren't more productive than they were Sunday or if the defense doesn't cause a turnover. But the performance against the Panthers showed the team's adaptability on both sides of the ball.
Andrus Peat's versatility has been a key factor in the Saints' offensive line's ability to play well amid a series of injuries. Peat has been the starting left guard, but played a significant amount of time at left tackle because of a series of injuries that have had Terron Armstead going in and out of the lineup.
Now Peat is unavailable because of a broken fibula suffered against the Panthers.
Senio Kelemete has been effective stepping in at left guard when Peat has moved to tackle, but if Armstead should go out again, the impact of Peat's absence will be magnified.
LESS IS MORE
The Saints offense did more with fewer opportunities than the Panthers did.
Carolina possessed the ball for 33 minutes, 49 seconds and the Saints had it for 26:11. Carolina ran 71 plays and New Orleans 56.
But the Saints finished with just three fewer yards (413-410) and, more important of course, more points.
THIRD DOWN STILL TROUBLE
The Saints have been trying to improve their third-down conversion rate all season, but struggled again Sunday. They converted just 2 of 8 and failed on their only fourth-down attempt, giving the Panthers a chance to win at the end.
But during a 21-point first half, the Saints mostly moved the chains without reaching third down.
TE Josh Hill scored his first career postseason touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Drew Brees in the second quarter. He finished with three catches for 49 yards.
K Wil Lutz made a career-long 57-yard field goal in the third quarter. It was the only field goal Lutz attempted in the game.
FB Zach Line scored a touchdown for the second consecutive game after not having scored an NFL touchdown previously. He scored on a 1-yard run in the second quarter, a week after he caught a 3-yard scoring pass from Drew Brees against Tampa Bay.
REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS
PASSING OFFENSE: A-plus
QB Drew Brees completed 23-of-33 passes for 376 yards, his second-highest total of the season, and two touchdowns. Even his interception wasn't as bad as it could have been because it came on fourth down and pushed the Panthers 16 yards further from the end zone than an incompletion would have to start their final possession. Brees found eight different receivers, most notably WRs Michael Thomas (eight catches, 131 yards) and Ted Ginn Jr. (4-115, 80-yard touchdown).
RUSHING OFFENSE: D
The Panthers were committed to stopping the run and they were successful, holding New Orleans to a season-low 41 rushing yards and an average of 1.9 yards per carry. Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara have split the workload and yardage pretty evenly all season and the same was true during Sunday's struggles. Ingram had nine rushes for 22 yards and Kamara had 10 rushes for 23.
PASS DEFENSE: B-minus
Cam Newton had big numbers -- 24 of 40 for 349 yards and two touchdowns -- but the Saints got several stops when the Panthers neared the end zone. Carolina had series that reached the New Orleans 7, 9, 21, 11, and 14 that yielded three field goals and one touchdown. TE Greg Olsen, who missed the two regular-season meetings because of injury, had eight catches for 107 yards and a 14-yard touchdown. Rookie Christian McCaffrey had six catches for 101 yards and a 56-yard touchdown.
RUSH DEFENSE: B
The Panthers averaged 4.1 yards on 26 rushes and never established a consistent running game. The Saints contained Newton (37 yards on eight rushes), forcing him to try and win the game mostly through the air, which he came close to doing.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Wil Lutz's 57-yard field goal extended the lead to 12 midway through the third quarter. All of Lutz's six kickoffs went for touchbacks. Thomas Morstead averaged 43.0 yards on four punts, one of which was downed inside the 20.
Head coach Sean Payton adjusted to a slow start after the Panthers used a five-man front to contain Ingram and Kamara and wisely put the game in Brees' hands. His faith in Lutz was rewarded when the second-year kicker made the 57-yard field goal. But the decision to go for a first down on fourth-and-2 with two minutes left and the Saints holding a five-point lead was a roll of the dice that failed. Newton drove Carolina to the 21, but the Saints defense pushed the Panthers back from there.
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