An NFC South edition of “Monday Night Football”
The Carolina Panthers hosted the New Orleans Saints for an NFC South edition of “Monday Night Football” to cap off Week 15.
The Panthers were desperate to pull off a win just to have any hope at all of staying alive for the playoffs. The Saints, with 11 wins already, were playing to build their lead in the NFC after the Los Angeles Rams lost to Philly on Sunday night.
Early on, it looked like the home team might just pull off the upset. But in the end the Saints kept marching, winning 12-9 in an ugly, ugly game.
These were the biggest winners and losers from the game.
Winner: Saints one step closer to home field throughout
It was not a beautiful game, but the outcome was gorgeous for the Saints. With 12 wins, they’re a game ahead of the Rams with two left to play.
Securing home-field advantage would be huge for New Orleans. Drew Brees is a different player at home. The entire offense is so much more explosive on the turf at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The No. 1 seed is in no way wrapped up. Next up they have the Pittsburgh Steelers, and then they’ll be right back facing the Panthers in the final game of the regular season.
Loser: Cam Newton isn’t right
Cam Newton might be doing his team more harm than good right now. Nobody can blame him for gutting it out with his shoulder injury — heck, he’d probably be criticized if he weren’t trying to play through it. But in reality, Newton’s inability to deliver the ball with accuracy right now is killing the Panthers.
We saw that multiple times throughout the first half as Newton’s passes hit the turf well in front of the feet of his intended targets. Then, in scoring range late in the second quarter, his ghastly interception to Eli Apple (watch here) cost Carolina a chance to stretch its lead.
Newton’s struggles continued into the second half as well. He just could not get the ball to his playmakers with any consistency. He finished with 131 yards on 16-of-29 passing — a miserable evening of work by any standard.
Winner: Riverboat Ron’s gutsy call pays off
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has developed a reputation for being bold. So it wasn’t surprising when he called for his offense to stay on the field on 4th-and-2 from the 50-yard line.
What was surprising is just how the Panthers converted. Some trickery was involved, and in the end Christian McCaffrey threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Manhertz (watch here).
This monster play set the tone for the do-or-die Panthers. Unfortunately, they could not capitalize on that momentum as the passing game crumbled into ruin.
Loser: Drew Brees getting cold at the wrong time
Heading into Monday night’s game, Brees was coming off two really bad games in a row. That trend continued against Carolina.
Brees completed 23-of-35 passes for 203 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. He also threw an awful pick-two to rookie Donte Jackson (watch here).
Looking back on the past three weeks, Brees has a grand total of two touchdowns and three interceptions (four, if you include the pick-two). This is an alarming trend with just two games left to play before it’s win or go home time for the Saints.
Winner: Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Eric Reid were on fire
The ESPN broadcast of Monday night’s game was fun because it featured a mic’d up Luke Kuechly. His ability to diagnose what the Saints were trying to do before the play was on full display, and of course his physical attributes allowed him to follow through and make impact plays.
His longtime running mate, Thomas Davis, also had a brilliant night. His coverage of tight end Dan Arnold late in the second quarter led to James Bradberry’s interception. He also made his presence felt at the line of scrimmage, finishing with 12 total tackles.
Safety Eric Reid probably had his best night as a Panther in this one. His mano-y-mano tackle of Alvin Kamara in the red zone saved a touchdown in the first half. He was flying around all night long making big plays, both behind the line and back deep.
Loser: D.J. Moore couldn’t hang onto the ball
Rookie receiver D.J. Moore has shown a ton of promise and appears to have what it takes to become a long-term impact player for Carolina. However, he has to learn how to protect the football better.
During the third quarter as the Panthers were driving, having reached midfield, Moore broke off a huge run right up the gut. He went 22 yards and appeared to have the Panthers in position to at least score a field goal.
But as he was being taken down, Vonn Bell came up from behind and punched the ball out (watch here). The turnover ended up leading to what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on the Saints’ next offensive possession.
Winner: Christian McCaffrey continues to shine as Panthers fade
Despite Carolina losing its last six games in a row, there has been one player who has been consistently amazing. That player is Christian McCaffey.
He joined an exclusive group of players with his touchdown pass. With it, he became just the third player in NFL history to pass for a touchdown while tallying six rushing and receiving touchdowns in a single season.
McCaffrey had 53 yards on the ground, 67 yards on eight catches and 50 yards passing on his lone attempt that resulted in Carolina’s only touchdown of the game. Another big night in a losing cause, and afterward he was clearly upset about the outcome.