The New Orleans Saints extended their win streak to two as they achieved a rare road victory over division rival Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte Thursday night. After knocking off the Green Bay Packers a few days earlier on Sunday Night Football, the Saints have now won two straight to take over first place in the NFC South. The Panthers, on the other hand, have dropped three in a row and fall to second place in the division.
The Saints knocked off their closest competition in the division, but more importantly notched their first road victory, and now get five of their next eight games at home. The Panthers, meanwhile, remain very much in playoff contention at 3-5-1, but need to straighten some things out in order to make a push in the division or vie for a Wild Card spot.
Here are five takeaways from the Saints win (and Panthers loss) on Thursday night.
The Saints notched their first win away from the Superdome Thursday night, despite an inauspicious first quarter and a half. Drew Brees was intercepted, fumbled, and the offense was forced to punt the following three possessions. That’s anything but a promising start. But the Saints bounced back to score two touchdowns before the half, then punted just once in the second half.
The Saints had previously lost their last seven games on the road dating back to last November, including the first four of this season. Whether the Saints have actually turned a corner remains to be seen. But it’s a positive benchmark for the team moving forward, assuming they make it to the postseason and are forced to play away from the Dome.
They are who we thought they are?
The Saints defense was wildly hyped to be one of the most improved units in football entering 2014. Top free-agent safety Jairus Byrd was added to a secondary featuring perennial Pro Bowlers Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis, while Cameron Jordan headlined a defensive front expected to be vastly dangerous.
However, Rob Ryan’s defense was a disappointment through the first half of the season, allowing just over 31 points per game in their previous four road losses. On Thursday the Saints held the dangerous Cam Newton and Co. to 10 points and 231 total yards of offense. The pass rush suffocated Newton, getting excellent pressure from the front four alone, while the secondary held the quarterback to a career-low 10 completions and a career-low 35.7 completion percentage.
The Ingram impact
Mark Ingram has rushed for 100 yards in back-to-back games and has three total touchdowns in the past two weeks, showing signs that he is fully recovered from the injury that plagued him from Weeks 3-6. Ingram has received 54 attempts over the past two games, which are the two highest carry totals of Ingram’s career and his highest total since he carried it 21 times in a 34-31 overtime win at Dallas in December 2011.
The presence of Ingram is unique for New Orleans, which in the past has tended to rely on guys like Pierre Thomas or Darren Sproles, whose skill-sets are more suited as pass-catching backs. The downfield runner that Ingram is has added a different, more traditional element to an already potent Saints offense.
Too much riding on Cam’s shoulder
The Carolina offense has been in horrible shape since its tie against Cincinnati. The Panthers have averaged 12.0 points per game in their last three losses, and in those games Newton’s completion percentage, passing yardage, and touchdowns have all been on the decline.
Newton has thrown one touchdown pass compared to three interceptions in those three losses, culminating in a 39.4 quarterback rating Thursday night against New Orleans. It’s beginning to feel like the preseason, when we predicted the Panthers’ patchwork offensive line, inconsistent running game, and a rookie No. 1 wide receiver would all catch up to the NFC South champs.
With the win, the Saints have climbed into first place in the very suspect NFC South and look to be the frontrunners over the Panthers. New Orleans’ next three games will put them to the test, with games against San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, but all will be at home. After traveling to Pittsburgh in Week 13, the Saints host these Panthers for what could be a de-facto division-deciding game. Then the Saints get Chicago, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay to round out their schedule. The Saints could go 6-2 down the stretch to finish at 10-6.
As for Carolina, the Panthers travel to Philadelphia then host Atlanta before their Week 12 bye. Then the Panthers head to the Twin Cities and back to New Orleans before rounding out their schedule with Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Atlanta. Will we see the Panthers of the first few weeks of the year or the ones currently in the midst of the losing skid? That remains to be seen. Given their unpredictability, it’s hard to imagine the Panthers reeling off seven straight wins, which will probably be necessary to overtake the Saints or be in the Wild Card discussion.