Panthers defense plays to potential in win over Saints

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The Carolina Panthers defense delivered in a 23-20 NFL victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday.

The Panthers sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times and held the NFL's best offense to 371 total yards.

New Orleans also led the league in passing, but Brees was held in check for most of the game.

Thursday's game was a far cry from the first time the Saints and Panthers played this season. The Saints won a 41-38 shootout on October 16, jumping out to a 21-0 lead before holding on late.

Brees threw for 465 yards and four touchdowns then, but Thursday was a different story.

He was 35 of 44 for 285 yards with two touchdowns, an interception and a fumble. 

The Saints limited Carolina quarterback Cam Newton to 192 passing yards on 14-of-33 passing.

 

BLOCKED

A blocked field goal late in the first half led to a Panthers touchdown that shifted the momentum.

Defensive tackle Vernon Butler, Carolina's first-round pick, blocked Wil Lutz's 38-yard attempt. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly returned it for 88 yards for a would-be touchdown, but it was called back to the Saints 40 because rookie cornerback James Bradberry was called for a block in the back on Saints kicker Lutz, who was behind Kuechly.

But the Panthers scored on the next play with a 40-yard pass to Ted Ginn, who made a sliding catch in the back of the end zone. It was initially ruled out of bounds, but called a touchdown after a review. 

SUPER MARIO

As well as the Panthers defense played Thursday, the player who stood out the most was sixth-year defensive end Mario Addison. It was his strip-sack of Brees on the Saints' opening series that set the tone. Addison, who finished with three tackles and a pair of sacks, recovered the fumble at the Saints 32.

The Panthers thought they got a touchdown four plays later on Ginn's end-around from the 14-yard line. A replay review showed Ginn was down at the one and the Panthers offense struggled to punch it in. The Panthers settled for a 32-yard Graham Gano field goal to cap an unorthodox 11-play, 18-yard series.

Addison left the game in the fourth quarter with a foot injury and did not return. He was not the only injury as Panthers center Ryan Kalil, who missed the last two games with a shoulder injury, left Thursday's game. Saints running back Mark Ingram, who had 28 yards on seven carries, left to get evaluated for a concussion.

Kuechly was carted off the field late to be evaluated for a concussion. Without Addison and Kuechly, who had a game-high 14 tackles, on the field, the Saints rallied, but were not able to overcome their early deficit.

 

BACK IN THE NFC SOUTH

It took four games, but the Panthers finally won a game in the NFC South. Carolina have won the division three straight years and were the odds-on favourites to win it again this season. Coming off a 15-1 record and an NFC championship, the Panthers have struggled this season. 

But they are only two games back of the division-leading Atlanta Falcons, who are on their bye this week. What may be frustrating for Panthers fans is wondering where the defensive effort turned in Thursday has been all season. The Saints were no slouch offense and they were shut down. 

The Panthers close the regular season with two more division games - at home against the Falcons before finishing at Tampa Bay. If the Panthers can survive a tough four-game stretch in between with road games at Oakland, Seattle and Washington and a home game against San Diego, they could be in a position to contend for the division. They have been there before, sitting at 3-8-1 in 2013 before four straight wins saw them claim the division.