Carolina's in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, with a shot
at homefield advantage. Their fortunes, which went from possibly not
making the postseason at all to a seemingly likely #2 seed and a week
off, were held up by the defense for 59 minutes before Cam Newton and
Domenik Hixon came through and delivered the knockout punch for the win.
It looked dire for Carolina at the two minute bell - after four
straight 3 and outs, they were punting from their own territory, and
then they took too long setting up the punt (which would've saved one
Carolina timeout). I didn't have confidence they would get the stop
against Drew Brees and company, though there's no reason to suggest that
Newton and the offense would've pulled off the 4th and 7 that had just
faced them. No Steve Smith, thanks to what we know now to be a PCL
sprain, and no real production in the second half to that point.
Somehow, the defense (which had Brees for six sacks and 2 INT already),
which had endured 80 plays, held. Sean Payton went conservative, ran
the ball three times, and punted. Carolina threw their timeouts at it
and hoped for a field goal, down by 3. What happened next was magical.
Newton's had trouble stepping up in the pocket this year. After a
couple of years of making the magical scrambles that highlight sports
shows, not unlike the one he had this year against the Pats, he's been
able to make something despite a solid pocket inside and rushers that
keep good contain; this year, especially against the Saints, he's also
taken very long sacks because of it. One 15 yard rush for a first down
has also included more 15 yard sacks, drive killers.
So on that first down, from his 35 and a minute to go, without Steve
Smith, things looked grim. Newton stepped up in the pocket and drilled
Ted Ginn on the deep drive route. Replays showed Newton almost in the
grasp of a lineman; he couldn't step into his throw, forcing him to make
a deep middle pass on arm strength alone. Ginn reeled it in - all of a
sudden, instead of being 30 yards from a deep field goal, Carolina had a
shot at the NO 28. After a misfire to Ginn, Newton hit Olsen for 15
more - a spike, then the corner route to Hixon for the TD. It was a low
ball, and Hixon had to dive for it. The connection ensured the win.
Until then, it was a defensive battle and a sloppy game. The defense
held Brees (30/44, 281, TD/2 INT) based on the turnovers; the offense
just sputtered along, doing enough to play field position. Newton, who
only had 6 yards rushing, had an INT and took 4 sacks, was 13/22 on the
day for under 181. 65 of those came on the last drive. Carolina ended
0-9 on third down. They more or less abandoned the run all game, 13
designed runs to backs (one to Mike Tolbert, who had 3 total touches),
and seven of those came in the first half; there were only two rushes by
Williams after the second series of the second half. Consequently,
third downs got longer, and therefore tougher. The Newton rush threat
was clipped by a problematic ankle. No Smith changed the coverage to
more of a press, and Carolina struggled to answer until the last minute.
But that defense - earning a spot back as the top scoring D, and the
2nd ranked yardage D, it made its plays. Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles
(26 asking the team) and a pick; he's player of the week for NFC
defense. Thomas Davis had a nifty pick on a zone blitz play, lining up
in a 3 point stance and dropping, 14 tackles, and two tackles for loss.
That's two players, combining for two turnovers and almost 40 tackles.
Greg Hardy had three sacks, and what should've been another (either
Drew Brees was sacked/in the grasp, or that incompletion should've been
grounding...it was a throwaway to evade a sack, in the pocket, thrown
behind the line of scrimmage). He picked on rook Terron Armstead for
two, another inside. The DBs blitzed into more - Quinton Mikell got
one, as did Captain Munnerlyn, and Mike Mitchell picked up a half with
DE Mario Addison. Addison and Kawann Short don't get the statistical
credit, but both combined for a hurry that forced Brees into the Kuechly
Munnerlyn, as well, had a great day in coverage, playing the press
better and allowing two receptions totaling 15 yards in his area, and
got a hand on one of those passes. Drayton Florence had a struggle here
and there but played physical as well, and Melvin White had some hiccups
but the Saints wide receivers only caught 12/19 for 147, with Marques
Colston being 5/10 for 63 yards, 35 coming on one miss by Florence who
went for the ball. It was a much better day for the secondary than the
first attempt at New Orleans.
So, since New Orleans had lost at St. Louis the week before, Carolina
owns the tiebreaker after the split series. They control their destiny
- a win against the Falcons and they're the #2 seed, which comes with a
home playoff and a much-needed week off. They have clinched a playoff
birth either way, but would end up a 5 or 6 seed with a loss and a
Saints win, along with a road game in playoff week 1 against whichever
NFC East or North team backs into the playoffs.
(sorry for dealing with the past week on Thursday - holidays and all)