Coming Up Clutch: Saints Defense Suffocates Panthers and Gets New Orleans One Step Closer to #1 Playoff Seed

Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Clutch: Giving a great or outstanding effort in the most critical of situations.

If the New Orleans Saints are going to achieve their goal of winning the Super Bowl this season, they need a defense capable of shutting down teams in key moments, especially when their high-powered offense isn’t performing well. That requires a defense capable of rising to the occasion in the most critical of situations, and especially during the NFL Playoffs. After last night’s clutch performance for pretty much the entire game and particularly in the game’s final minute, this Saints’ defense can now be trusted to lead the franchise all the way to a second World Championship.

As Who Dats are well aware: the Saints’ defense began the season with a horrible performance in the team’s season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, but since that time has slowly developed into one of the top defensive units in the entire NFL.

In last night’s 12-9 win over their divisional rival, the Carolina Panthers on ESPN Monday Night Football, the Saints’ defense that’s been among the very best in the League for the past six weeks rendered Panthers quarterback Cam Newton completely ineffective, sacking him four times and even forcing him into committing two crucial turnovers. As a direct result, Carolina became the sixth straight team that the Saints’ defense has now held to 13 points or fewer (a 12.3 average) in successive weeks.

And in those six games, the Saints defense has generated 14 turnovers, 28 sacks, 49 QB hits. 4 second half shutouts, and has only allowed a grand total of 17 second half points.

Those are absolutely staggering numbers, from any perspective.

Nevertheless, the game still went predictably down to the wire, and the Panthers had a chance to pull out a win late in the contest after Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis fumbled the ball out of the end zone on an end-around from the 5-yard line, with 1:44 left to play. Carolina had one last possession to try and pull out the victory, but the Saints defense came up clutch as they stopped the Panthers on a 4th-down-and-10-play, preserving the crucial victory.

As it turned out, the Saints defense needed to give that outstanding effort to bail out the offense, which struggled for the third consecutive game, especially in the 1st half. Saints 18th-year veteran quarterback Drew Brees seemed to be off on his throws at times, throwing an interception for a fourth consecutive game.

The future Hall of Famer completed only 23 passes out of 35 attempts for 203 yards and had one of his passes picked off on a two-point conversion attempt which was then returned by Panthers rookie cornerback and former LSU star Donte Jackson for two Carolina points.

But the unit really began to struggle when it lost two starters along the offensive line – center Max Unger and left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who was in the line-up to replace the injured Terron Armstead – and was forced to shuffle the line-up with backups. Replacements Cameron Tom and rookie Will Clapp both filled in admirably, but after that, the O-Line yielded two sacks and several hits on Brees.

It was the defense that ultimately saved the day. Other than allowing a 50-yard touchdown on a halfback pass by Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey to tight end Chris Manhertz on Carolina’s first offensive possession, the Saints defense shut them down. The Saints defensive Front 7 practically suffocated Newton, as the at-times controversial 8th-year veteran finished with 13 pass completions out of 22 attempts for 112 yards along with one interception.

The Saints secondary had another impressive performance, led by two of their young veterans and former Ohio State University star defensive backs Eli Apple and Vonn Bell; both of whom came up with big plays in the clutch.

Apple made a key end-zone interception at the end of the 1st half, while Bell forced a fumble that ended another Panthers offensive scoring threat early on in the 4th quarter. That turnover was ultimately turned into a touchdown on offense for New Orleans when 2nd year running back Alvin Kamara scored on a 16-yard run that finally gave the Saints their first lead of the game.

It was then up to the defense to keep Newton and the Panthers offense at bay, which they were able to do with notable success. In all, Carolina was held to 247 yards worth of total offense, and the Black and Gold limited them to just 13 first downs for the entire contest.

But the win also boosted the Saints’ chances of staying at home for the remainder of the post-season.

Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s hard-fought Saints victory combined with the Rams’ loss to the Eagles the other night, now puts New Orleans one game ahead of Los Angeles in the race for the #1 overall Playoff seed within the NFC. The (12-2) Saints already own the tie-breaker against the (11-3) Rams because they defeated them head-to-head by a score of 45-35 on November 4th at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Which means that if New Orleans and Los Angeles were to both finish with identical (13-3) records, the Saints would earn the #1 seed.

All the Saints need to do now in order to clinch the #1 seed and home-field advantage is to win either one of its two remaining Regular Season games, both of which will be played at the Superdome: against the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday (December 23rd) and then Carolina once again in the season finale (December 30th).

Credit: Derick E. Hingle

Meanwhile, the Rams’ final two games are against a pair of teams with losing records: at the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday (December 23rd) and then at home against the San Francisco 49ers in their Regular Season finale on December 30th.

Essentially: if the Saints earn the #1 seed, then the Black and Gold wouldn’t have to leave southeastern Louisiana again until the first week of February — the week of the Super Bowl in Atlanta itself.

Here are the very latest up-to-date NFC Playoff seedings, with 2 games remaining:

1 – New Orleans Saints: (12-2)

2 – Los Angeles Rams: (11-3)

3 – Chicago Bears: (10-4)

4 – Dallas Cowboys: (8-6)

5 – Seattle Seahawks: (8-6)

6 – Minnesota Vikings: (7-6-1)

STILL IN THE HUNT:  Philadelphia Eagles (7-7), Washington Redskins (7-7), Carolina Panthers (6-8)

WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR:  Green Bay Packers (5-8-1), Atlanta Falcons (5-9), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9), New York Giants (5-9), Detroit Lions (5-9), San Francisco 49ers (4-10), Arizona Cardinals (3-11)

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. You can view the rest of his Saints coverage and several feature articles here.

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