The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers added another chapter to their growing and underrated rivalry, with a thrilling 31-26 Saints victory in the best played game of the NFL Wild Card Weekend. The Saints won their first playoff game since the 2013 season, and did so without big production from their two Pro Bowl running backs. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were held to just 68 yards from scrimmage by a Panthers defense hell-bent on stopping them. That left the New Orleans fate in the hands of a beat up defense that came up strong in the red zone, along with a passing game that had at times lacked the consistency of year's past.
The Saints prevailed, and now have a rematch with the Minnesota Vikings in next week's divisional playoff round. Today, we award our game balls to some of the best performances in the Saints gripping playoff victory.
GAME BALL #1 —Ted Ginn Jr. and Josh Hill
Much has been talked about in recent weeks about the ability of the Saints complimentary weapons to step up if called upon in key moments. That question was answered in this playoff game. Ginn opened the scoring, by freeing himself up for an 80 yard touchdown reception against his former team for a Saints offense that had been stymied early. His 17 and 12-yd. receptions on the first New Orleans drive of the second half were key plays leading to a Saints field goal, as he finished with 4 catches for 115 yards and a score.
With apologies to Brandon Coleman, who also had a good game with 4 big catches for 44 yards, Hill provided some key plays from a tight end position that has lacked threat most of the season. Hill caught just 3 passes for 49 yards, but one went for a 9-yd. second quarter touchdown, and another a key play in a New Orleans touchdown drive at the end of the first half.
GAME BALL #2 — Michael Thomas
Thomas obliterated the Panthers secondary for the third time this season, catching 8 passes for 131 yards in this playoff showdown, and has now averaged six receptions for 87 yards in five career games against the Panthers. On a day where his star teammates Ingram and Kamara were contained, Thomas proved that Carolina still had no answer for his talents. He made a number of acrobatic catches in key moments, diving for a 14-yd. reception to the Panthers goal line at the end of the first half for one touchdown, and snagging a back-breaking 46-yd. reception late in the 4th quarter to set up the Saints final touchdown.
GAME BALL #3 — Cam Jordan
Jordan began his week by being named to his first NFL All-Pro team, and ended the weekend by showing the nation why he should be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan took up residence in the Panthers backfield, and torturing Carolina left tackle Matt Kalil. He led the Saints defensive line charge that also featured solid pass rush performances from defensive tackles Tyeler Davison, David Onyemata, and Sheldon Rankins. Jordan crushed quarterback Cam Newton on a 3rd quarter sack to kill building Panthers momentum. He pressured the Carolina quarterback the entire second half, forcing a number of scrambles and rushed throws. In the game's waning seconds, Jordan rushed Newton into a key intentional grounding, then two plays later pressured Newton into a game-ending sack by safety Vonn Bell. Jordan finished with 3 tackles, 5 pressures, and a quarterback sack, and his disruptive influence continues to fuel the success of the Saints defense.
GAME BALL #4 — Drew Brees
The Panthers decided that they weren't going to let pro bowl running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara beat them, so they stacked the tackle box, and prevented them from getting clean releases out of the backfield in the passing game. New Orleans responded by putting the offense into the hands of one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Drew Brees riddled the Carolina defense for nearly 70% completion percentage (23-33), for 376 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception. The future Hall of Famer opened the game's scoring on the Saints third drive with a spectacular 80-yd. touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. On the play, Brees showed great savvy and patience by looking towards wide receiver Michael Thomas to move a Panthers safety out of position, then hit Ginn with a precise strike in the deep middle. Brees tore the Carolina defense apart in the middle of the field all afternoon, completing 11 of 12 passes for 216 yards. Late in the 4th quarter, Brees rolled to his right and hit Thomas with a brilliant 46-yd. pass down to the Panthers five, where Kamara would score two plays later to give New Orleans a key 31-19 lead with just five minutes remaining. The quarterback's 85.8 grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) was the second highest among all signal callers in the Wild Card round, as Brees proved that he is still more than capable of leading his team to another championship.
Who was your top performer in the Saints wild card win over the Panthers?
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Ted Ginn Jr.