NEW ORLEANS - Beating the same team three times in a season is not easy, but it can be done.
The New Orleans Saints advanced to the NFC Divisional playoffs next Sunday at Minnesota with a heart stopping, 31-26 victory over Carolina in the Wild Card playoffs Sunday afternoon at the Superdome.
It all came down to a fourth down at the Saints' 34-yard line with 11 seconds to go in the game with Carolina quarterback Cam Newton suddenly hot and on the verge of avenging two regular season losses to New Orleans.
But safety Vonn Bell and defensive end Cameron Jordan wrapped up Newton in paper and plastic with a 17-yard sack with five seconds to go. Saints quarterback Drew Brees took a knee, and it was over.
Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen to get the Panthers within 24-19 early in the fourth quarter. The Saints' defense had made Carolina settle for four field goals instead of touchdowns previously. Newton later left the game briefly for concussion protocol after being sacked for a 10-yard loss by defensive tackle Tyeler Davison.
Brees showed as much mobility as the much younger Newton by rolling to his right and finding wide receiver Michael Thomas for a 46-yard gain to the Panthers' 5-yard line. Running back Alvin Kamara later scored on a 2-yard run up the middle for a 31-19 Saints lead with 5:08 to play. But it was far from over.
Newton returned and threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to running back Christian McCaffrey to get the Panthers within 31-26 with 4:09 to go.
The Saints then failed on a fourth-and-two conversion attempt from the Carolina 47-yard line when Brees was intercepted by safety Michael Adams, and the Panthers took over at their 31. They drove as far as the Saints' 21 before the drive stalled and went backwards.
The Saints answered a stirring pregame at the dome by piling up 244 yards of offense to 190 at the half for a 21-9 halftime lead.
Brees found wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a former Panther, on an 80-yard touchdown pass with 1:46 to go in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. Then Brees hit tight end Josh Hill for a 9-yard touchdown and 14-3 lead with 9:04 to go before halftime.
The Saints went up 21-6 on a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback Zach Line with 43 seconds to go before halftime. But Carolina got a 58-yard field goal from Graham Gano as time expired for the 21-9 score.
Carolina then drove to the Saints' 4-yard line to open the third quarter and threatened to cut the lead to 21-16, but linebacker Jonathan Freeny sacked Newton on third and goal for a 7-yard loss as Newton rolled to his left. This brought on Gano yet again for a 29-yard field goal, and the Saints held on to a 21-12 lead with 10:58 left in the third quarter.
Saints' kicker Wil Lutz countered with a 57-yard field goal to put New Orleans up 24-12 with 6:05 to go in the third quarter.
Carolina answered the 80-yard score with a 27-yard field goal by Gano to cut the Saints' lead to 7-3 with 14:12 to play in the second quarter. Gano booted a 39-yard field goal to cut the Saints' lead to 14-6 with 2:47 remaining in the second period.
A dozen or so members of the Super Bowl XXIV champion New Orleans Saints were introduced before the game stayed on the sidelines to watch. The baseball bat that former running back Reggie Bush brought out the tunnel before the Saints' playoff opener that 2009-10 season season against Arizona in the dome also made an appearance.
"The bat will live on forever," Bush said in an interview over the dome's loudspeakers before Sunday's kickoff. "It'll always be part of this team, this city.”
The Saints beat Arizona, 45-15, then Minnesota, 31-28 in overtime in the dome and reached Super Bowl XLIV, where it beat Indianapolis, 31-17.
Among the former Saints introduced were cornerback Tracy Porter, whose 74-yard interception return of Colt quarterback Peyton Manning for a touchdown iced the game, linebacker Scott Fujita, running back Pierre Thomas and kicker Garrett Hartley.
The introductions added to a loud and frenzied opening to the game, which was the Saints' first playoff game in the dome since the 2011 season. But the Saints failed to move on their first two drives, totaling nine yards in six plays. Carolina, meanwhile, drove 63 yards in 15 plays to the Saints' 7-yard line, but New Orleans held. Then Gano missed a 25-yard field goal wide right as the crowd went wild.
The Saints then took over, and Brees found Ginn for the touchdown. The Panthers responded with a 66-yard drive in six plays for the field goal and 7-3 score.
The Saints totaled 230 yards on 19 plays for the three touchdowns to close the first half after their first two drives.
The Saints lost to Minnesota (13-3) in the season opener, 29-19, at Minnesota.
But this is a different team.