NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints had little trouble dispatching the Carolina Panthers in their first meeting of this season. But reflecting on recent history of the matchup, a number of Saints players still had an ominous feeling.
“They have been getting the best of us, especially in big games,” running back Mark Ingram said, alluding to the fact that prior of the Week 3 Saints win, the Panthers had beaten New Orleans eight straight times.
As they entered Sunday’s game at the Superdome tied for first place in the NFC South, the Saints had a clear goal.
“We put an emphasis that we were going to be the bullies,” Ingram continued. “We were going to hit them in the mouth.”
Ingram and his teammates did just that. Using a potent rushing attack and a stifling defense, New Orleans rolled to a 31-21 win over Carolina on Sunday.
Ingram delivered 85 rushing yards and a touchdown as well as 37 receiving yards. Fellow back Alvin Kamara added 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns with 66 receiving yards. Their efforts helped spearhead an offense that cranked out 400 total yards.
Meanwhile, the Saints defense bottled up running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey (61 yards combined) and limited quarterback Cam Newton to 183 passing yards and 51 rushing yards.
Beating the Panthers meant more than just getting the season sweep and taking steps toward reversing a trend, however.
The Saints gained sole possession of first place in the division, creating some breathing room between them and the now 8-4 Panthers and 7-5 Falcons, who also lost on Sunday.
The victory also gave New Orleans its ninth win of the season and ensured the team its first winning campaign since 2013. Since that 11-5 year, the Saints have endured 7-9 three straight seasons.
New Orleans also showed its resiliency after last week's loss to the Los Angeles Rams ended an eight-game win streak.
“The message all week was that the season wasn’t over,” defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said.
Led by quarterback Drew Brees, who passed for 269 yards and a touchdown while completing 25 of 34 passes, the Saints dominated in nearly every statistical category. But the game had the early makings of a shootout. The Saints moved the ball at will on a nine-play, 70-yard scoring drive powered largely by Kamara.
The Panthers answered right back with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive of their own, which ended with a two-yard Jonathan Stewart touchdown.
But both defenses buckled down, each forcing two straight punts.
New Orleans erupted on its fourth possession, however, as Mark Ingram ripped off a 72-yard run, Kamara followed with a nine-yard carry, and Ingram ran it in from three yards out to go up 14-7.
The Saints extended their lead to two touchdowns as Brees capped his team’s next possession with a 10-yard strike to Michael Thomas.
But Carolina finally ended its scoring drought four minutes later when the Panthers defense forced a fumble at their own 4. Four plays later, Newton connected with McCaffrey on a 22-yard toss on which New Orleans had a blown coverage and left the back wide open on the wheel route.
Carolina’s defense held once more to make for a 21-14 halftime score.
“I felt like we came out and executed and were efficient,” Newton said. “We just hit a lull right there. We are playing a type of team like this, games moving forward, we just have to find ways to keep and stay intact. We didn’t do that today.”
Newton and the Panthers managed just 12 yards in the third quarter because the Saints defense remained disciplined and thwarted the three-headed rushing attack and pressured the quarterback repeatedly. Meanwhile, Kamara added his second rushing touchdown midway through the third quarter, scoring from 20 yards out.
Carolina produced only 12 third-quarter yards but threatened early in the fourth quarter, moving the ball to the New Orleans 7-yard line (a 28-yard pass interference call helped their efforts), but the Saints denied them with a stop on fourth-and-goal.
The Panthers mustered one final charge with just less than six minutes left on the clock. The 32-yard Newton run set up a 24-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess, cutting the deficit to 10.
Now the Saints turn their attention to a Thursday night matchup in Atlanta, where they will try to further pad their lead in the division.
“I think we’re playing good football,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s a young team, so I think we’re learning each week. As coaches, it’s our job to keep teaching.”