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Other Week 18 Game Recaps

Week 18 Game Recap: Carolina Panthers 26, New Orleans Saints 31

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Carolina Panthers

A lack of true playmaking options and an allergy to touchdowns in the red zone were the undoing of the Panthers in this matchup. Cam Newton played a pretty solid game, taking what was given by the defense and mixing in some terrific strikes when the opportunities arose. The ground game struggled to get going, with the Saints plugging the gaps well. Christian McCaffrey was much more involved as a receiver than a runner, and scooted down the field for a 56-yard touchdown along the way. Kaelin Clay dropped a sure touchdown pass that would have given the Panthers a 7-0 lead, while the other receivers ˝ apart from Olsen and Funchess - struggled to make their presence felt. Greg Olsen dominated all over the field and clicked well with Newton throughout.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints survived a late scare from the Panthers on Wild Card Weekend to see another day against the Vikings in Minnesota. The newly improved defense was able to step up when needed at the end of the game, but did give up over 400 yards of total offense and allowed a late rally to make the game much closer than it was in the first half. The running game was non-existent, but Drew Brees came to the rescue as the Saints have now beaten the Panthers 3 times in the same season. Ted Ginn put up a big game against his former team and showed them the explosive playmaking ability they let go. The Saints lost to the Vikings in week 1 on Monday Night Football but have found their identity on offense and continue to have a revitalized defense. Look for a great matchup next weekend in Minnesota as the Saints try and avenge their early loss and move on to the NFC Championship Game.

Carolina Panthers

QB Cam Newton, 73 offensive snaps, Pass: 24 - 40 - 349 - 2 TD / 0 INT, Rush: 8 - 37 - 0
Coping as best as he could with a depleted receiving corps, Cam Newton showed vast improvement from last week against Atlanta. The Panthers looked to get him into a rhythm with some zone read plays and designed runs early, but the Saints kept these under wraps for the most part. It was as a passer, especially towards the end of the game, when Newton shone. A pinpoint pass to Greg Olsen on the sideline - low and away from the defender ˝ augured well for what was to come. The Panthers offense, as it has all season, consisted of little chunks of yardage and Newton was often asked to convert tricky third downs. An early end zone shot to Kaelin Clay should have been a touchdown, but it was dropped by the receiver. As the Panthers saw the deficit on the scoreboard widen, Newton and the offense had to go more pass-heavy. With that Newton dealt with more pressure and took a couple of unnecessary sacks. Still, he managed to battle on and hit Olsen for a beautiful touchdown pass on a stick and nod route in the red zone. He added a second touchdown pass with a quick ball to Christian McCaffrey, with the rookie turning on the jets to reach the end zone. Newton got clocked in the head late in the game and appeared to be concussed, but he came back into the game. Newton managed to orchestrate a successful final drive, but was called for intentional grounding that essentially ended the game. Overall, it was a clean game from Newton, who will rue the lack of red zone success as the Saints blanketed the Carolina weapons effectively.

RB Christian McCaffrey, 59 offensive snaps, Rush: 6 - 16 - 0, Rec: 6 - 101 - 1 (8 targets)
Like backfield mate Jonathan Stewart, it was a difficult day for Christian McCaffrey. Nevertheless, after getting involved in the passing attack early and often with simple check downs and passes over the middle against the Saints' zone coverage, he broke a long one. Running a fantastic option route that left the defender for dead, McCaffrey scooted inside after a well-timed Newton pass, split a couple of defenders and scored on a 56-yard play. McCaffrey was later the target of an end zone pass to potentially win the game, but it was too far out in front for him.

RB Jonathan Stewart, 24 offensive snaps, Rush: 11 - 51 - 0
It proved to be a forgettable affair for Jonathan Stewart who, after busting off a big run on the first offensive play, faded into the background. The Panthers stayed with a physical ground attack as long as they could, but once the Saints built the lead they had to scrap that strategy. Stewart was often met at or behind the line of scrimmage as the Saints remained disciplined. He busted off another big run at the start of the second half to ignite the offense, but was largely kept in check.

WR Devin Funchess, 65 offensive snaps, Rec: 4 - 79 - 0 (8 targets)
Despite having to fight through injury, Devin Funchess did his utmost to be a factor against vaunted rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The young man struggled to contain Funchess' physical route running at times, and looked visibly frustrated as the rangy Carolina receiver continued to win on in-breaking routes. Funchess and Cam Newton had a decent connection on this patterns, but otherwise were unable to connect on downfield targets. Funchess was the target of two end zone passes late in the game, one of which could have been the game winner. It appeared as though he misjudged the ball's flight, as he seemed to stop when all he needed to do was reach out his hands.

WR Kaelin Clay, 42 offensive snaps, Rec: 3 - 32 - 0 (4 targets)
With the Panthers struggling in the passing game, Kaelin Clay had some bright moments ˝ but also had a crucial error to take a touchdown off the board. Cam Newton fired a pass to Clay in the end zone on a quick out, but it clanged off his hands despite pinpoint placement. It could have given the Panthers an early 7-0 lead. Otherwise, Clay did well to haul in a pass along the sideline in the two minute drill towards the end of the game, tapping both feet after securing a Newton bullet pass. He could have redeemed himself with a deep touchdown reception, only to be tackled by a defensive back, drawing a pass interference penalty.

TE Greg Olsen, 69 offensive snaps, Rec: 8 - 107 - 1 (12 targets)
The veteran tight end proved to be the main threat in the Panthers' otherwise mediocre passing attack against New Orleans. Olsen consistently took advantage of favourable matchups inside the hashes, boxing out defenders and making tough catches. He went low for his first catch, an acrobatic effort to slide and maintain his concentration as he veered towards the sideline. He was unfortunate not to haul in an end zone target near the front pylon, but an excellent breakup by the defensive back put that to bed. Olsen found himself uncovered on a couple of occasions, and seized the opportunity with some chunk plays. He capped his day with a well-executed touchdown catch. Lined up in the slot right a few yards short of the end zone, Olsen won at the release and got inside leverage on his defender to give Cam Newton a throwing window. The tight end ˝ and Newton's most trusted target - did not disappoint.

New Orleans Saints

QB Drew Brees, 58 offensive snaps, Pass: 23 - 33 - 376 - 2 TD / 1 INT, Rush: 1 - -1 - 0
This was the vintage Brees that everyone has grown accustomed to seeing. With over 300 yards passing and 2 touchdowns, this is the type of game that is thought of when you mention his name. The lone interception came on a 4th down play and actually saved yards for the Saints. Had the defensive back merely batted the ball to the ground, the Panthers would have gained almost 20 yards in field position. With the running game going nowhere, it was Brees along with Thomas and Ginn that really stepped up this week. The first touchdown came on a deep crossing route from Ginn where the former Panther simply outran his corner in coverage and the safety who was late coming over to help for an 80-yard touchdown. The first quarter had been entirely uneventful until this point and set the tone for the rest of the game. The second touchdown pass was a play-action pass where Josh Hill beat the linebacker in coverage and leaked out into the open flat for an easy 9-yard touchdown. The entire Panthers defense seemed to bite on the play-action as the Saints have run the ball more in the red zone than any other team this season. Brees spread the ball around to 8 different receivers this week but will face a much stiffer test against the Vikings secondary in their home stadium. If the running game cannot get going again next week, Brees will have to lead the team to victory.

RB Alvin Kamara, 37 offensive snaps, Rush: 10 - 23 - 1, Rec: 1 - 10 - 0 (3 targets)
Just like Ingram, Kamara had a game he would soon like to forget. He out-touched Ingram 11-10 and did get the call in a goal to go situation for the touchdown, but he only had 10 carries and averaged 2.3 yards per carry. The rookie backÝs longest run of the day was a tough 5 yards up the middle and the touchdown came from 2 yards out. Kamara did not even play a big role in the passing game as he only caught 1 of 3 targets for 10 yards. The Panthers talked all week about how they planned to stop the run and that was the only thing their defense succeeded to do. Look for the Saints to try and get back to running the ball next week against the Vikings.

RB Mark Ingram, 27 offensive snaps, Rush: 9 - 22 - 0, Rec: 1 - 13 - 0 (1 targets)
Despite holding a lead almost the entire game, the Saints did not commit to the run as it was very ineffective. Ingram only touched the ball 10 times and did not surpass 35 total yards. He had his lowest yards per carry total of the season with 2.4 and was out-touched by Alvin Kamara 11-10. Ingram even lost work down around the goal line as both Kamara and Line took the ball in for short scores. There have not been many games this season where the entire Saints rushing attack fell flat, but this was one of those games. Both Ingram and Kamara are going to have to play much better next week if they want to beat Minnesota. The only real stat of note was Ingram had the Saints longest rush of the day with a 7-yard scamper off tackle.

RB Zach Line, 13 offensive snaps, Rush: 1 - 1 - 1, Rec: 1 - 7 - 0 (1 targets)
It has been Ingram and Kamara all season long from the 1-yard line, but LineÝs name was called this week in the Saints biggest game. The big fullback took the ball the last yard right behind his guard for the Saints touchdown. Last week he caught a touchdown and this week he runs for one. However, do not expect Line to see increased usage for the rest of the playoffs.

WR Michael Thomas, 49 offensive snaps, Rec: 8 - 131 - 0 (9 targets)
Thomas was Brees favorite target, as usual, this week, but was held out of the end zone as the rest of the Saints receivers stepped up. ThomasÝ best chance at a touchdown came on his 46-yard reception where he was tackled at the 5-yard line. Brees was able to escape the pass rush and rolled to his right, Luke Keuchly had sucked up in case Brees was going to run, and Thomas was able to settle into the void just behind the defense. IT became a foot race to the end zone that Thomas just barely lost, but the Saints were able to cash in a touchdown 2 plays later. Thomas was targeted 9 times to lead all receivers again this week and surpassed the 100 yards receiving mark. By motioning Kamara to the outside of Thomas, the Saints were able to get him into the slot and against a backup corner for much of the game. Brees was able to exploit this matchup all night but never cashed it in for a touchdown. Thomas will face Xavier Rhodes next week and will have a much tougher time getting open.

WR Ted Ginn, 34 offensive snaps, Rec: 4 - 115 - 1 (6 targets)
It is always a sweet feeling to go against a former team and put up a huge game. Ginn showed the Panthers just what they let walk out the door with over 100 yards and an explosive 80-yard touchdown catch. Ginn has never been a stranger to the big play but has battled injuries and drops over the course of his career. This week he made sure to show the Panthers what he was capable of. The 80-yard touchdown came on a 2nd and 10 play that the defense bit on a play-action from Brees and Ginn ran a deep crossing route. Brees put the ball just far enough into GinnÝs outstretched arms that the speedy receiver did not even have to break stride on his foot race to the end zone. The safety took a very poor angle and Ginn went untouched into the end zone. There was also a very impressive 15-yard contested catch across the middle on 3rd down. Ginn could be seen jawing with the opposition all game and seemed to relish in the fact that he could stick it to a former team.

TE Josh Hill, 43 offensive snaps, Rec: 3 - 49 - 1 (4 targets)
Hill played a bigger role this week than he has at any other point in the season. He managed a big 25-yard reception for a key first down and a 9-yard pitch and catch touchdown with no defender in the area. The 25-yard reception came on a skinny post that Brees laid the ball right over his shoulder. It could have been a much bigger play had the corner not made a diving tackle. His touchdown catch was the benefit of a beautiful play fake where the entire defense seemed to bite. Hill only needed to beat a linebacker in coverage as he leaked out into the flat for the easy score. In a week where the running game was not effective, The Saints needed Hill more than ever.