Saints hold off Panthers in NFC wildcard game

The New Orleans Saints swept the regular-season series against the Carolina Panthers and they completed the hat-trick with a 31-26 victory in an NFC wildcard game at the Superdome on Sunday.

The Panthers (11-6) had a chance late, getting the ball back down by five with under two minutes remaining. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton drove his team to the New Orleans 21-yard line, but Saints safety Vonn Bell sacked Newton on fourth-and-23 from the 34-yard line to clinch it. 

The Saints (12-5) did lose starting guard Andrus Peat in the first half with a broken fibula. He was replaced by versatile veteran Senio Kelemete, who appeared in every game this season and made eight starts. Kelemete will likely start next Sunday's divisional round game at Minnesota. 



The Saints had a pair of Pro Bowlers in the backfield with running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The Panthers came in with the NFL's third-ranked rush defense and held the Saints to 41 rushing yards. But that just put the ball in the hands of Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was nearly flawless.

The NFL's most accurate passer was 23 of 33 for 376 yards on Sunday. The Saints put the game away after Brees completed a 46-yard pass to Michael Thomas to get the ball to the Panthers' five-yard line. Thomas finished with eight receptions for 131 yards.


A pair of handoffs to Kamara had the Saints in the end zone as they took a 31-19 lead with five minutes, eight seconds remaining.



The Panthers will no doubt be haunted by Sunday's missed opportunities. The Panthers had the ball inside the Saints' 25-yard line three times in the first half and came away with just six points. Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed a 25-yard chip shot but did boot a pair of short field goals and a 58-yarder as the Saints held a 21-9 half-time lead.

Gano's missed 25-yard attempt was preceded by a drop by Kaelin Clay that would have set the Panthers up inside the five-yard line. The miss punctuated a 15-play, 63-yard drive that took 7:37 yet yielded zero points. Two plays later, Brees hit former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn for an 80-yard touchdown with 1:46 remaining in the first quarter.

The Panthers drove the ball inside the Saints' red zone four times before finally scoring on Cam Newton's 14-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen early in the fourth quarter.

The Pro Bowl tight end was about the only offense the Panthers had in New Orleans. Olsen finished with eight catches for 107 yards and the touchdown. Newton went 24 of 40 for 349 yards and two touchdowns. Newton and the Panthers needed someone other than Olsen to make a play and it just did not happen until rookie running back Christian McCaffrey scored on a 56-yard catch-and-run with 4:09 remaining. McCaffrey, who had 37 rushing yards, finished with six receptions for 101 yards.



The Saints and Vikings met in the season opener in Minneapolis and the Vikings (13-3) handed the Saints a 29-19 defeat. With the top-seed Eagles missing Carson Wentz and an underdog to the sixth-seeded Falcons next Saturday, the Saints-Vikings winner would host the NFC championship game if the Falcons win.

The Saints can avenge their earlier loss, but it will not be easy to beat a rested Vikings team that has the NFL's top-ranked defense.

"We had to fight to play next week," Saints defensive end Cam Jordan, who had a sack and tackle for loss, told Fox Sports.

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