It was a mostly ugly and chippy game between NFC South rivals, and the Carolina Panthers were able to prevail at home 17-13, thanks to an incredible game-winning touchdown pass from Domenik Hixon. The Panthers were able to survive what could be a significant knee injury to star receiver Steve Smith, and all you have to do is look at the injuries to Michael Crabtree and Reggie Wayne this season to see how important a No. 1 receiver is to an offense. Yesterday’s game wasn’t pretty at times due to the rain, and it was a defensive battle until both quarterbacks got cooking on the last few drives. Below are ten in-depth observations that stood out to me from the Panthers win, which prevented the Saints from locking up a playoff bye. The ramifications of this game were huge, and the Panthers were able to step up and get revenge on their rivals.
1. Neither quarterback played a good game, and Drew Brees really didn’t look himself out there. Even at the beginning of the game when he was racking up completions, those passes were simply quick, dink-and-dunk throws that really did nothing. The Panthers linebackers snuffed everything out, and I was very impressed with the Panthers coverage. Whenever Brees wanted to take a shot downfield, there was never anyone open; he had to take a couple of coverage sacks as a result of the Panthers downfield play. In fact, I can’t remember the Saints completing one pass deep downfield, and you can really hurt the Saints when you take the deep ball away from Brees.
The Saints wide receivers also weren’t as consistent as we’re accustomed to seeing. Marques Colston was a monster in the first half, but I don’t even think he caught a pass in the second half. Jimmy Graham was incredibly quiet until he broke out in a huge way on the Saints touchdown drive, showcasing his incredible ball skills. On a 35-yard catch, Graham showed off great athleticism and caught a well-thrown ball from Brees. He also had a nice first down catch later on the drive, and his touchdown catch was an absolute beauty; he just plucked it out of the air over Quintin Mikell.
2. I found it interesting that Brees threw five passes to Pierre Thomas and that Thomas caught all of them for just seven yards. Yeah, seven. That’s a testament to Thomas Davis, who is one of the game’s best coverage LBs. Why? Well, he showed us why yesterday by putting on a clinic. Davis knows exactly how to defend sideline-to-sideline with his incredibly speed and instincts, and there aren’t many LBs with his closing speed. He’ll let the running back catch a screen pass or whatever, but he’ll quickly make the tackle for a minimal gain. Great coverage isn’t just about not allowing a catch, it’s also about causing each reception to be for a short gain, especially at the linebacker position. Davis was even able to force a tackle for loss or two on a pass play. His interception of Brees was off of an expert zone blitz, which Brees should have anticipated since Davis was lined up at DE. Instead, Brees made the mistake of making the read assuming that nobody would be there, and it costed him; Davis showed the ball skills of a safety on that pick, too.
3. Speaking of standout linebackers, Luke Kuechly was mentioned by the announcers on almost every snap, because he was just all over the place. I don’t think there’s a more instinctive linebacker in the NFL, because Kuechly reads plays perfectly and sees them unfold. There is no way to fool this guy out there, as Kuechly once again proved that misdirection doesn’t work. Davis had a great game with 14 tackles (two for a loss), but Kuechly was even better with an insane 24 tackles (one for a loss). He also picked off Brees on what was a downright awful throw from the Saints star quarterback.
4. While both of Brees’s interceptions were totally on him, Cam Newton‘s interception on the Panthers opening drive wasn’t his fault. However, I thought Newton was at fault for parts of the interception. From what I saw (guessing plays is an inexact science, so I might be totally wrong on this one), the playcall from the Panthers was a quick slant to Ted Ginn Jr., since they wanted to take advantage of the space left in front of the safeties. On that type of pass, the goal is to get the ball out of there as quickly as possible, since the receiver will immediately have a step on the corner and can turn up field for a nice (think seven-yard) gain. Instead of getting the ball out of there to Ginn, who was open right from the get-go, Newton saw that he had great blocking and decided to hold onto the ball. Ginn turned on the route (this makes me believe that it wasn’t a slant but rather a hook-in), and the fact that Newton didn’t turn it shortly after his break also hurt him. But he still had another chance to make this a solid play by sticking the ball to Ginn “on the numbers”. However, he threw the ball off of Ginn Jr., forcing the receiver to try and make a one-handed catch on the errant pass, and then the ball ended up being a tipped pick for Malcolm Jenkins (props to him for getting that one).
5. In rainy games that are defensive struggles, punting becomes incredibly important, and it’s safe to say that both punters did their jobs. Thomas Morstead pinned the Panthers inside the 20 on two occasions and averaged 48.6 yards per punt. Meanwhile, Brad Nortman was even better (this guy is really good), as he averaged 50.8 yards per punt and pinned the Saints on the three yard-line on two occasions. Both times, Darren Sproles allowed the ball to go over him, thinking that it would roll into the end zone. And both times, the Saints were held with their backs against the wall; punters are important. The Saints touchdown drive actually started from their own three, so big props to Brees and Co. for finally getting it together (there was also some great playcalling from Sean Payton from that drive, who was previously stymied by Panthers ace defensive coordinator Sean McDermott).
Now for some quick-hit thoughts on other special teams plays. Payton is one of the gutsiest head coaches in the NFL, and he made one good decision and one bad decision relating to special teams and tricking the opposition. His onside-kick caught just about everyone off-guard (Jason Williams was alert and nearly snuffed out the play), and the Saints executed it perfectly both on the kick by Morstead and the recovery by Ramon Humber.
What I didn’t like from Payton was the decision to audible out of the field goal formation and throw the ball with Luke McCown. The play was doomed from the start, the throw was horrendous, the blocking from the long snapper was horrendous, and the Saints had a better chance of nailing the field goal than completing that past. They should have trusted Shayne Graham, and three points there could have changed the complexion of the game. Why? Well, all the Saints would have needed on that final drive was three instead of seven to win, but it’s always easy to play the what-if game.