Third time’s the charm (again): The Saints hang on to beat the Panthers one more time and advance

“It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season” is a popular refrain in the NFL for when division rivals meet in the playoffs. The numbers don’t really bear it out, though: Going into this season, a division rival that had swept its opponent in the regular season was 11-5 in a third matchup in the postseason since 1970. The Saints made it 12-5 with their 31-26 victory over Carolina on Sunday, the closest game the three teams had played yet, a game with indicators both good and worrying. On the good side, New Orleans thoroughly controlled the first half, and though the defense gave up several long drives, they clamped down at the right time, limiting the Panthers to four field goal attempts, of which they made three. (Bizarrely, Carolina kicker Graham Gano missed a 25-yard field goal on his first attempt, but drilled a 58-yarder at the halftime buzzer.) The scoring kicked off with a deep bomb to Ted Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown; Drew Brees’ deep ball may not be quite what it used to be, but as long as Ginn can get behind the defense and Brees can give him enough space to keep going for the score, the home run threat is always present with these Saints. On the worrying side, the Saints opened the game with two three-and-outs, not aided by some peculiar playcalling on Sean Payton’s part. (I have no idea why motioning Tommylee Lewis into the backfield and throwing him a pitch on 3rd-and-2 was the call, other than “Just to show the Panthers we’ll do stuff like this,” but it lost four yards.) The Saints have occasionally taken time to find a groove in games this year; they may not be able to afford that futzing around against better teams. The second half was worrying as well, as the Saints struggled too often on offense and gave up touchdowns too readily. Even so, after a deep ball to Michael Thomas set the Saints up at first and goal, to score two yards later on an Alvin Kamara run, it looked like New Orleans had effectively locked the game up, up 31-19 with 5:08 left. That changed quickly, as the secondary was slow to react to a Christian McCaffrey catch down the middle, and he zipped through the defense and took it for 56 yards, as the Panthers would take less than a minute to score. If the Saints had even been able to slow the Panthers to a more methodical drive, Carolina would have had little or no time left afterward, at best being forced to resort to an onside kick to get the ball back. Instead, the Saints would receive possession with 4:09 left, looking to run out the clock and end the game. It was during this drive Sean Payton made one of my favorite calls. After the two-minute warning, the Saints had the ball at the Carolina 47 facing 4th and 2. Payton decided not to punt and “trust the defense”; instead, he correctly reasoned that if he could get two yards here, the game would be over. Punting might make the Panthers take a little longer to drive down the field, but they had been moving the ball too well on deep passes in the second half for that to mean much, and a first down would secure the win. (It’s also too likely something goes wrong with a punt, like a long return or even a touchback.) The Saints’ offense being what it is, Payton made the call to go for it, one of the typically aggressive moves that sets him a cut above most coaches in the league. Unfortunately, it didn’t work; the Saints seemed to have a slant dialed up for Michael Thomas, but he got jammed at the line, and pressure forced Brees to roll to his right. He tossed up a desperation ball that was intercepted by Mike Adams, which actually gave the Saints 16 extra yards of field position to work with on defense. That might have made the difference: the Panthers stalled out at the Saints’ 21, and an intentional grounding penalty on second down pushed them further back, where the drive ended with a sack on 4th-and-23 thanks to a perfectly timed Vonn Bell blitz up the middle. If the Saints don’t have those 16 yards, then the Panthers are at the Saints’ 5 with 46 seconds left, and can rely on the running game, especially Cam Newton’s function in it, as an extra weapon to try to score. (Similarly, if Graham Gano doesn’t miss the 25-yard field goal early, then the Panthers can settle down and line up for a game-winning kick, instead of having to keep taking strikes at the end zone.) Admittedly, this description does not capture how intense or nerve-wracking that final drive was. As much faith as I had in the Saints, and as many plays as they had made at the right time, they were letting the Panthers advance the ball far too easily on the last drive for me to feel comfortable. (It only took them three plays to march from their own 31 to the Saints’ 26.) But on a day where the running game struggled to gain traction and the offense had to rely on Drew Brees once more, the Saints got just enough breaks to hold on and advance to the divisional round. Divisional preview Going into the weekend, most Saints fans were mentally preparing for a trip to 1 seed Philadelphia. That all changed when the Atlanta Falcons upset the Los Angeles Rams Saturday night, sending them to play the Eagles and leaving the Saints-Panthers winner headed to Minnesota to face the Vikings. While the matchup with Philadelphia was projected to be easier, as they are missing Carson Wentz, the change in circumstances comes with a hidden bonus: If the Saints and Falcons both pull off wins, the NFC Championship Game will be in the Superdome. The Saints and Vikings have already played once in Minnesota; the Vikings won 29-19 in week 1, although those were practically two different teams. Sam Bradford was still handing off to Dalvin Cook and burning De’Vante Harris with his passing. Adrian Peterson was still getting carries for New Orleans. The Vikings lost both of their offensive catalysts to injury, although Case Keenum has been playing lights-out for Minnesota. Peterson has long since been shipped to Arizona, and management finally got so sick of Harris getting burned that they relegated him to the practice squad. The rematch should be more favorable for the Saints than the initial matchup was, although unfortunately the Saints have suffered so many injuries that the overall talent level may not quite be there. The latest of those injuries is the broken leg suffered by starting left guard Andrus Peat last week. Senio Kelemete will fill in capably, but he’s still not the same player, and this could prove a weakness against a team with such a strong defensive line as the Vikings. (The Saints are now missing ten projected starters to injury: Peat, Zach Strief, John Kuhn, Coby Fleener, Nick Fairley, Alex Okafor, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, Kenny Vaccaro, and Delvin Breaux. That number doesn’t include players who had to step in as starters after other players were injured, like Hau’oli Kikaha. The Saints have twenty-one players in total on reserve, including a whopping eight defensive linemen. Somehow, thankfully, four of the Saints’ projected top six defensive linemen have stayed healthy all year.) Fortunately, the Saints match up well with the Vikings in other areas. I mentioned in last week’s preview that the injuries to Kenny Vaccaro and the linebacker crew meant the team would probably have difficulty covering Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey; this proved prescient, as the duo combined for 14 catches, 208 of Carolina’s 349 receiving yards, and both of the team’s touchdowns. The Vikings, on the other hand, don’t have a stud receiving back with Cook gone (although Jerick McKinnon does have nifty athleticism) or a game-changing tight end (Kyle Rudolph, in the words of Jack Donaghy, is capable, but he’s not a star). The Vikings’ best offensive playmakers are receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen; you may recall last time out that the two tuned up the Saints to the effect of 9 catches for 153 yards for Thielen, and 7 for 93, with two touchdowns, for Diggs. However, those numbers were often achieved by targeting P.J. Williams and De’Vante Harris in coverage; with Ken Crawley now joining Marshon Lattimore in the starting lineup, that kind of production will not be nearly as easy for Minnesota to achieve. The Saints’ defensive strengths match up well with the Vikings’ offensive strengths. Similarly, though the Vikings have a fearsome pass rush led by bookends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter (now in his third year, Hunter notoriously had more sacks as a backup rookie than he did in his entire college career at LSU), the Saints are strong at tackle with Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. If they can slow down Minnesota’s pass rush, Drew Brees will have a shot to find open receivers. Of course, that could be difficult in its own right, given the strength of the Vikings elsewhere. Xavier Rhodes was a first-team All-Pro at cornerback, and he’ll almost certainly be asked to shadow Michael Thomas. Free safety Harrison Smith was also a first-team All-Pro, and his range and playmaking ability could make it difficult for New Orleans to successfully stretch the field with Ginn. Linebacker Anthony Barr has bounced back after an injury-plagued 2016 and, unfortunately, has the kind of athleticism needed to keep up with Alvin Kamara, while middle linebacker Eric Kendricks is a mainstay of the defense, a tackling machine with great instincts and recognition who almost never leaves the field, who rated as the #5 inside linebacker this last NFL season by the NFL1000 crew at Bleacher Report. (I really wanted him over Stephone Anthony in 2015. It’s more a lament than a brag; you can see from those rankings that I seriously missed on quite a few players.) The Vikings match up well with the Saints, too, although that’s not hard to do when you have talent at every level of the defense. The game may come down to how well Sean Payton can identify and attack weaknesses in the Vikings’ lineup. On the defensive side for the Saints, that weakness may be on the offensive line; though Minnesota’s unit is much improved from the disasters of the last few years, thanks to the additions of quality talent like Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein, the weak spots may still be exploitable. You may remember that Cameron Jordan called Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil “Speedbump McGee” after the game; Vikings right tackle Mike Remmers was one of the players Carolina decided wasn’t good enough at left tackle the last couple of seasons (you may remember him getting beaten repeatedly by the Broncos in the Super Bowl), and Kalil was an upgrade. (Ironically, Kalil came to Carolina from Minnesota, where he rapidly regressed after a Pro Bowl rookie season.) Jordan could feast if he matches up with Remmers; I imagine defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen are already planning creative ways to get Jordan the best matchups possible. It’s going to be a difficult game; the Vikings opened as 3.5-point favorites, which has now moved to 5 at most books. (Home-field advantage is worth about 3 of those points.) If the Saints were healthier– with Peat, Fleener, Vaccaro, A.J. Klein, Alex Okafor, and Alex Anzalone in particular playing– I think that line would change. But the Saints have a chance: They still have the talent and coaching required to make this a competitive match. Their best hope may be to rattle Case Keenum; although Keenum has had an outstanding year, someone with his track record as a career backup and spot starter can still be prone to mistakes and getting rattled. (Keenum’s biggest weakness during his Houston Texans days was his inability to handle a blitz, as he often turned and ran when pressure came unblocked.) Forcing turnovers would be huge, as the Saints could use every advantage in field position they can get against the Vikings defense, and if they manage to score on a return or two, so much the better. Oddly enough, the Saints have had a largely inverse relationship with turnovers and winning this season than is typical. They’ve lost three times this year when they had the turnover advantage, going 3-3 in those situations, and only 2-2 when they had a turnover margin of +2 or more. (Research is limited in this regard, but what I can find suggests that teams that win the turnover battle by 2 or more tend to win more than 80% of the time.) Just as strangely, in the five games the Saints had a negative turnover margin, they went 5-0. (The Bears, Jets, Buccaneers, and Packers without Aaron Rodgers weren’t the toughest teams on the schedule.) Of course, over time we’d expect these numbers to sort themselves out and shouldn’t conclude that the team is better when they turn the ball over. What is certain is that this will be a very competitive game. The Saints have hope, but it’s not going to be easy. In a year where forces seem to be lining up for them just right, though, wouldn’t it be appropriate if the Saints pulled out another playoff win against a Vikings team unexpectedly?