By Nick Shook
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The Saints‘ vaunted running duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara made quick work of the Panthers‘ defense as New Orleans (9-3) took control of the NFC South with a 31-21 win Sunday.
1. The lead story of this game, and potentially of this day is Alvin Kamara. For the second straight week, the running back was New Orleans’ Mr. Do Everything, taking nine handoffs for 60 yards and two touchdowns and catching five passes for an additional 66 yards. The output placed him in a very special club, joining Herschel Walker, Charley Taylor and Billy Sims in becoming just the fourth rookie running back in history to break 600 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving in the same season. Taylor is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Walker and Sims were both All-Pros at least once in their careers. New Orleans hit the jackpot when it selected Kamara in the third round of last spring’s draft.
And while Kamara soaks up the spotlight, Mark Ingram was just as excellent, toting the ball 14 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. Sure, 72 of those yards came on one run, but games like today demonstrate why the Saints are so dangerous: They have a two-headed monster in the backfield, a future Hall of Fame quarterback and a stable of targets. Against one of the league’s better defenses, they didn’t slow down.
2. What began as a heavyweight fight, with each side trading early blows, became the Panthers (8-4) struggling to get up off the mat. The Saints knocked the opposition off its feet with a 72-yard Mark Ingram run right up the middle, then scored two plays later on a 3-yard Ingram touchdown run. The shift in momentum came in a flash, starting with Carolina punter Michael Palardy fumbling and attempting an ill-fated throw to cap a three-and-out, and New Orleans scoring on a six-play drive on the ensuing possession. Just like that, the Saints held a 21-7 lead, and the Panthers never recovered.
3. Chris Wesseling called the Rams‘ Week 12 win over New Orleans a yardstick game, but this one felt much more like a statement victory from the Saints, who delivered a crushing blow to the Panthers with that aforementioned exchange and rode it to an emphatic win over an equally upstart rival. New Orleans very well could have allowed last week’s loss to Los Angeles to send it into a skid against another good opponent, but sensing the gravity of the situation, the Saints took advantage. It’s even more impressive when considering New Orleans did it without standout corner Marshon Lattimore, tight end Coby Fleener and tackle Terron Armstead. Their next great test comes against Atlanta next week, with two games against the Falcons ahead in the next three weeks. New Orleans has an opportunity to build on what it accomplished Sunday by downing the Falcons and severely impacting their playoff hopes with two wins over them, while also locking up the division in the process. A crucial five-week stretch began with a big one on Sunday.
4. Credit is due to the Carolina offense, which jettisoned Kelvin Benjamin weeks ago and is now making strides with a couple of unheralded receivers. Cam Newton spread the ball among seven different targets, including Brenton Bersin (one catch, 18 yards), Kaelin Clay (one catch, 13 yards) and Damiere Byrd (one catch, 12 yards). Those three were at the bottom of the receiving group, which Devin Funchess (four catches, 60 yards, one touchdown) and Christian McCaffrey (five catches, 33 yards, one touchdown) led, but made timely plays in their limited roles. As long as Carolina can continue to get the lesser players to contribute in important moments, this team will be one that can’t be taken lightly.
I should also point out that Cam Newton is nearing his peak, thanks to Carolina allowing the quarterback to run free whenever he so pleases. The result was a 17-of-27 passing day with 183 yards and two scores, but also included six rushes for 51 yards. Newton is at his best when he can use all of his skills — running included — and Carolina has finally gotten back to letting him do that.
5. We received a potential playoff preview on Sunday in New Orleans. With the Saints now owning a one-game lead, they’re in the driver’s seat to win the NFC South. Carolina should win a Wild Card berth if it can’t overtake New Orleans in the final month, and we very well could get this game again in early January. It sure felt like one and played like one, with energy being high and players flying around the field with plenty of intensity. The Saints secured the season sweep of this rivalry, but that third meeting is a very real possibility — and it promises to be a good one, should it happen.