The New Orleans Saints wrapped up their 2019 regular season on a high note, destroying the Carolina Panthers 42-10 on the road. Unfortunately, the Saints 13-3 record was not good enough to earn a first round playoff bye. Due to tiebreakers, the Saints finished as the NFC's 3rd seed behind the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers and will host the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday in the wild card round.
Despite that, New Orleans will head into the playoffs as hot as any team in the league and still among the top Super Bowl favorites. They ended the competitive phase of the season finale early. They drove 75 yards for a touchdown on the game's opening drive and followed that up with a three and out defensive stop. That was a recurring theme throughout the first half, as New Orleans rolled up 266 yards and 20 first downs in the opening two quarters while racking up a franchise record 35 first half points. Defensively, the Saints held the Panthers without a first down until 2 minutes remained in the first half, pressured the Panthers quarterbacks all game, and caused 3 turnovers. Here are some of the top performances from this resounding New Orleans victory.
His numbers weren't overly impressive, but Tre'quan Smith is beginning to take on a bigger role in the Saints passing offense. Smith caught all five of his targets for 56 yards and a touchdown, his third score in the last four games. The Panthers were determined not to let Michael Thomas beat them and they did hold the NFL's best receiver to a season low 4 receptions for 37 yards. Tight end Jared Cook had 2 big catches for 44 yards, including a spectacular 21-Yd touchdown grab in the second quarter but was held in check otherwise. With Carolina coverage bracketed toward the two New Orleans stars, Smith stepped up and was able to keep a few drives alive.
The Saints had their linebacking corps back intact for the first time in a month. Kiko Alonso returned after missing three games and belted Panthers quarterback Will Grier on the game's opening play to force an incompletion. He and Demario Davis created chaos in the Carolina backfield all afternoon, forcing rushed throws and altering run plays.
Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey has been a challenge to all opponents, but the Saints managed to contain the Panthers All-Pro. McCaffrey did have 98 total yards on 16 touches. Aside from a 28-Yd reception though, he was largely a non-factor. It took a team defensive effort from the Saints to contain McCaffrey, but the linebackers were at the forefront. Probably the game's biggest star was former Panther A.J. Klein, who had a spectacular performance. Klein brilliantly stepped in front of Carolina tight end Greg Olsen to intercept a Grier throw in the second quarter, returning the pick for a 14-Yd touchdown and a 21-0 New Orleans lead. Klein had five tackles in the game, including 3 for loss and a quarterback pressure, while allowing just two receptions for 8 yards in coverage.
Coach Payton celebrated his 56th birthday on Sunday by leading his squad to a dominating win over his division rival. Payton and his coaching staff have done perhaps their most impressive job in 2019. They kept the team focused after the disappointing robbery in last year's NFC championship game and put together the NFL's most balanced team. Despite key injuries on both sides of the ball, the Saints had a brilliant game plan on both offense and defense every week to showcase the team's depth and talent.
New Orleans now faces a new challenge in this postseason after ending the last two years in heartbreak. As we've seen year after year, anything could happen in the NFL playoffs. But only a fool would bet against Sean Payton and his staff to have his team fully prepared for another championship run.