This was the statement the New Orleans Saints had to make.
When the Saints jetted home from Los Angeles last week, their dream comeback season was teetering after a 26-20 loss to the Rams. Their eight-game winning streak snapped, the Saints even ran out of daylight between themselves and the fast-closing Carolina Panthers, who won four in a row themselves to match New Orleans at 8-3.
This was the showdown, the second of a defining three-game stretch that started with the Rams and wraps up Thursday at Atlanta against quality teams all jockeying for spots and seedings in next month’s NFC playoffs.
The result? Well, let’s just say that when the season is over, when the late mad rush through the NFC South is done, the New Orleans Saints and their pursuers may look back on this raucous Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as the day the division was won.
It’s not over. Not with the last month of the Saints’ schedule still jammed up with games against Atlanta (twice) and Tampa Bay. But an emphatic 31-21 victory over Carolina allowed New Orleans to put a divide between itself and the rest of the division in as meaningful a December game as has been played in years in these parts.
“It was obviously,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, “a significant win.”
How significant? Let us count the ways:
1. At 9-3, the Saints hold just a one-game lead over Carolina but a massive head-to-head tiebreaker for divisional title and playoff seeding purposes thanks to their season sweep of the Panthers (New Orleans started its win streak Sept. 24 with a 34-13 romp at Carolina).
2. The Saints are 3-0 in the NFC South, unbelievably just halfway through their divisional schedule, but nonetheless an important benchmark to reach.
3. The Falcons (7-5) fell two games back of the Saints as their offense turned pumpkin again in a 14-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Atlanta.
In a perverse way, the Falcons did their division-leading archrival a disservice by losing to Minnesota. The Saints are sparring with the other NFC division leaders — the Philadelphia Eagles (10-1 entering Sunday’s late game at Seattle), the Vikings (10-2 with a tiebreaker on New Orleans) and the Rams (9-3 also with the tiebreaker) — for one of those coveted top two conference playoff seeds that carry with them both home-field advantage and a first-round bye.
But New Orleans has to make winning the division the first point of emphasis, and Sunday’s results put the Saints a major step closer to achieving that goal. If New Orleans wins any three of its last four games against Atlanta, the New York Jets and at Tampa Bay, the Saints can’t be caught for the divisional title.
“It’s all in front of us,” Brees said.
New Orleans started the game clearly playing with purpose matched with the kind of dice you sometimes have to roll to turn the odds your way. On fourth-and-goal at the 2, Alvin Kamara took a pitch right from Drew Brees and second-efforted his way into the end zone, the kind of run that makes the Saints faithful love this rookie phenom all the more.
“You look for those game-defining plays,” Brees said. “The message it sends to the team is that we’re going to be aggressive.”
“He’s a monster,” fellow running back Mark Ingram said of Kamara. “He’s always doing his thing. He’s a special player.”
Carolina tied it 7-7 with a leaping 2-yard touchdown run of its own from Jonathan Stewart, but the Saints defense — still without key rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore — found a way to tighten the screws. New Orleans forced Carolina into four straight three-and-outs as the offense fleshed out a 21-7 lead on a 3-yard TD run by Ingram and a 10-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Michael Thomas.
Newton and the Panthers are a dangerous bunch, having put up 80 points in their last two games coming into this one. But Carolina was mostly neutralized by that gutsy Saints defense. The Panthers could have tied it to start the second half, but an A.J. Klein sack of Newton forced a punt which set up another Saints touchdown drive, a 20-yard run by the talented Mr. Kamara, for a 28-14 lead. Carolina couldn’t close the double-digit gap after that.
The gap that has reopened between the Saints and Panthers may be just as impossible for Carolina to close, not that Brees or his team are in any mood to gloat.
“We have an extremely tough division,” he said. “We have three teams that are vying for that top spot and a playoff opportunity. There’s no more important game than the next game.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, after Carolina’s Kaelin Clay fumbled a punt that the Saints recovered at the Panthers’ 47, the familiar “Who dat?” chant cranked to life inside the Superdome.
Who dat? Not the Panthers. Not this season. And maybe no one else in the NFC South, either.