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Week 15 Game Recap: New Orleans Saints 12, Carolina Panthers 9


What you need to know

New Orleans Saints

It may not have been pretty, but a win is a win at this point in the season. The Saints are a step closer to sealing home field advantage and a first round bye to start the playoffs after a comeback win against their division rival. The Panthers jumped out to an early lead on a Christian McCaffery 50-yard touchdown pass on a 4th down trick play, and the Saints struggled to finish their own drives. The offense seemed to move the ball freely in the first half but could not close the deal in Panther territory with touchdowns. Mark Ingram started strong and then gave way to Alvin Kamara in the second half. A disastrous 2-point conversion attempt was intercepted and returned for 2 points for the Panthers, and a fumble in the red zone at the end of the game gave the Panthers a chance to go down the field and try to win the game. The defense was able to hold off the frenzied final attack and the Saints moved to 12-2 on the season. There is still a tough road ahead with home games against the Steelers and Panthers again to close out the season, but a loss by the Rams gives the Saints some margin for error for the number 1 seed. Drew Brees struggled in this one and threw an interception for the 4th straight game and did not throw a touchdown for the first time this season.

Carolina Panthers

A hobbled Cam Newton crippled the Panthers offense and forced them to play with one arm tied behind their back. Newton's ailing right shoulder meant, like the past few games, that he was unable to test the Saints downfield. The offense lacked any vertical element and Christian McCaffrey became a much bigger factor as a result. The second-year back tossed his first touchdown pass as a Panther, as well as providing quality touches as a runner and receiver. The receivers were barely involved, though rookie D.J. Moore provided a splash play, dashing between the tackles on a designed run before being caught from behind and having the ball knocked out. Devin Funchess was a non-factor, his only target resulting in an interception. After a strong outing against Cleveland, rookie tight end Ian Thomas was an afterthought, with passes in his direction often falling short of their mark.

New Orleans Saints

QB Drew Brees, 74 offensive snaps, Pass: 23 - 35 - 203 - 0 TD / 1 INT, Rush: 2 - -2 - 0
It has been a rough 3 game stretch for Brees and today was the worst of the 3. He threw an interception for the 4th straight game after being nearly perfect to start the year and he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season. Brees also struggled with accuracy and missed on a season high 12 throws this week. He was bailed out by a smothering defense and a run game that was able to do just enough to pull out the win. The longest play of the day was a 28-yard pass to Watson up the seam followed by a 21-yard streaking Kirkwood across the middle. Brees and Thomas had their usual connection (7 of 9 targets) but the yardage and touchdowns were just not there this week. Brees interception came just over mid field when he tried to take a shot down the field to Dan Arnold. The backup tight end got his hands on the ball, but it was knocked free as he was going to the ground and intercepted by a trailing defender. Brees also threw an interception on a 2-point conversion play where he targeted Thomas on a quick out and the route was jumped and returned 100 yards for 2 points the other way. These stats do not count towards the official line and Brees ended his day with just the single interception. The team continues to win despite the struggling Brees. There is the outside chance that he gets a breather down the stretch if they have wrapped up the number 1 seed. Brees will face a Steelers defense that just got done shutting down Tom Brady and the Patriots next weekend.

RB Alvin Kamara, 47 offensive snaps, Rush: 14 - 67 - 1, Rec: 7 - 36 - 0 (9 targets)
This game would have had a much different ending had it not been for Kamara in the second half. The Saints rode Ingram heavy in the first half and found success moving the ball but could not find the end zone. It was Kamara who finally broke that trend with a little over 12 minutes left in the game to give the Saints the lead. He took the ball 16 yards off the right tackle for the touchdown. It was a pure speed run as he bounced to the outside and simply outran the poor angle of the defender to the end zone. Where Kamara really set himself apart from Ingram this week was in the passing game. He tied Thomas for the team lead with 9 targets and 7 receptions. He was never truly able to break free and was tackled almost immediately on almost every throw. His longest reception this week went for 11 yards. With 23 total touches this week, Kamara finally saw the volume he was getting at the start of the season. Ingram is always going to be there taking away carries, but Kamara is still the better option out of that back field going forward.

RB Mark Ingram, 33 offensive snaps, Rush: 12 - 63 - 0, Rec: 2 - 11 - 0 (2 targets)
It was setting up to be a big game for Ingram in the first half until the Saints changed gears after half time and featured Kamara almost exclusively. Ingram had the longest play on the ground with his 22-yard rumble, but the success seemed short lived as the Saints were trailing late in the game. The game plan in the second half was much more pass heavy and that caters more to Kamara out of the back field. Ingram caught both of his targets for 11 yards, but that production was met by Kamara on a single reception. There seems to be no traditional roles for either back this season as it has changed from game to game. Usually Ingram is the short yardage and goal line back while Kamara is the pass catching change of pace back. The Saints are finding that Kamara can do it all and there is a chance that Ingram is in a different uniform next season.

WR Michael Thomas, 69 offensive snaps, Rec: 7 - 49 - 0 (9 targets)
It was a very quiet game for the entire Saints receiving core and it all started with Thomas. Despite catching 7 of his 9 targets, he failed to surpass 50 yards receiving. Brees struggled mightily this week and there was not much Thomas could do to bail him out. The Saints did a great job doubling him early and then an even better job wrapping him up and tackling on the passes that did get completed. Thomas' longest catch of the night was 12 yards and he was never able to break free. He was the target on the failed 2-point conversion play where Brees just did not see the crashing defender. Thomas ran a quick out route and it was undercut by the corner and returned 100 yards for 2 points the other way. There was nothing he could do on the play as Brees just made the wrong decision on where to go with the ball. Thomas has done all the heavy lifting for the receiving core this season and will need more help on the opposite side to help open things back up for him. A matchup with Joe Haden and the Steelers next week may be just what he needs to break the slump.

WR TreQuan Smith, 46 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 15 - 0 (4 targets)
It was a very quiet game for Smith against the Panthers this week. He caught 2 of his 4 targets and failed to surpass 20 yards. He has been a boom or bust candidate all season and has been on the bust side of things a lot more recently with the passing game struggling. There is a chance that Ted Ginn comes back from his knee injury for the playoffs and that will more or less put Smith out of business in the offense. There has been no clear second across from Thomas this season and the Saints may have to look outside the organization in the off season to fill that role. Smith's longest catch of the night was 9 yards and he did not play a major role in this one.

TE Ben Watson, 32 offensive snaps, Rec: 1 - 28 - 0 (2 targets)
It was a very slow day for Watson again this week. He was still 4th on the team in receiving yards and did not have any tight ends ahead of him on the list, but he still only had a single reception. Watson caught a 28-yard pass down the seam for a big first down but was quiet the rest of the game. The Saints ran a similar play later in the game where Brees threw his interception, but it was Dan Arnold on the receiving end instead of Watson. The Saints struggled in the red zone this week and neglected to use Watson at all. The passing game has struggled in recent weeks and Watson has not done much to help it. He is still a very valuable weapon that is just not being used right now.


Carolina Panthers

QB Cam Newton, 58 offensive snaps, Pass: 16 - 29 - 131 - 0 TD / 1 INT, Rush: 5 - 15 - 0
Cam Newton produced one of the lowest passing yardage totals of his career in a forgettable performance that confirmed just how serious his shoulder injury could be. After a nice downfield dagger to Curtis Samuel on a deep dig route, Newton winced with pain - and it wasn't clear whether it was due to the shoulder or the sandwich of Saints players that had just hit him. Newton favoured short passes from that point on, allowing the Saints to key on the receivers and prevent quick completions. Newton was able to connect with Christian McCaffrey consistently, but the rest of the passing attack was non-existent as Newton threw several balls off the mark. Newton's footwork was poor at times, resulting in off-target passes on simple plays. Some designed runs were built into the offense, but Newton was generally only able to gain ground when the play broke down. His interception was back-breaking for the offense, coming on an end zone target to Devin Funchess at the end of the first half. The cornerback established excellent position on Funchess and played the lofted ball well as it came into his coverage area. Newton had a final opportunity to drive the team down the field in the fourth quarter, but a pair of incomplete passes - with the Saints bringing pressure - put paid to any comeback hopes.

RB Christian McCaffrey, 58 offensive snaps, Pass: 1 - 1 - 50 - 1 TD / 0 INT, Rush: 15 - 53 - 0, Rec: 8 - 67 - 0 (11 targets)
With Cam Newton's injury in the spotlight, it was Christian McCaffrey who assumed the mantle as the offensive spearhead. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner relied heavily on McCaffrey early and the young back delivered, running tough between the tackles and showing excellent vision and patience. McCaffrey was responsible for the Panthers' lone touchdown pass of the game. The fourth down play saw McCaffrey run towards right tackle as if he was ready to carry the ball, only for him to pull up and toss a beautifully lofted pass to Chris Manhertz, who did the rest. McCaffrey absorbed some punishing hits from the Saints defense, who played close to the line of scrimmage, knowing that Newton's arm would not be able to test them deep. McCaffrey even lined up as a receiver late in the game, bamboozling a defender on a hitch route. McCaffrey provided a safe pair of hands on multiple check down passes for Newton, consistently splitting defenders for chunks of yardage.

WR Curtis Samuel, 55 offensive snaps, Rush: 2 - 8 - 0, Rec: 1 - 17 - 0 (4 targets)
Curtis Samuel was a non-factor in the passing attack as Cam Newton struggled to cope with his ailing right shoulder injury, so the young player was utilised as a runner instead. However, the Saints were wise to the threat and snuffed out a reverse and a shotgun carry for minimal yardage. His targets in the passing game were wide of the mark, though he managed to haul in a pass on a low throw from Newton over the middle on a dig pattern.

WR Jarius Wright, 36 offensive snaps, Rec: 3 - 21 - 0 (4 targets)
Jarius Wright provided a reliable target between the hashes on a handful of catches, even corralling a low pass from Cam Newton that looked certain to be an incompletion. Wright was unable to shake a tackle in the two-minute drill at the end of the game, getting hogtied by a Saints defender.

WR D.J. Moore, 57 offensive snaps, Rush: 1 - 22 - 0, Rec: 2 - 12 - 0 (3 targets)
A victim of the offensive struggles, D.J. Moore showed excellent strength and determination on a slant pass, catching the ball before bouncing off a defender and extending for the first down marker. Moore appeared to have nothing but green grass ahead of him on an inside handoff that was well blocked and well designed. However, after breaking through the line of scrimmage, the Saints defenders chased him down and popped the ball out just as he was increasing his speed. New Orleans recovered the ball and stifled any Carolina momentum.

WR Devin Funchess, 11 offensive snaps (1 targets)
The entire passing game suffered due to Cam Newton's injury, but no player was affected more than Devin Funchess. His lone target came on a critical play at the end of the first half, an end zone shot with Funchess lined up wide to the right. The defensive back established excellent position on Funchess, walling him off and pushing him towards the sideline, but Cam Newton released the pass anyway. The interception was a fait accompli as the ball appeared to lose velocity in the air.