BAYHAM: Saints At The Top Of The Heap

The New Orleans Saints finally tasted victory on the road this season when they manhandled the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football and emerged at the top of the stinking heap that is the NFC South.

For a team that had played like they have been snakebitten, including at the start of the game where the Black and Gold turned the ball over twice, the Saints had incredible luck when they rolled the dice on end zone plays that most other teams would have settled for field goals.

The first gutsy play call was Drew Brees’ touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 6 seconds left in the second quarter and then in the third quarter when Brees stretched the pigskin into the end zone on fourth-and-one at the Panthers’ goal line. Both plays had the potential to leave the Saints with no points though the Saints managed to convert.

Running back Mark Ingram had another solid performance as the team’s featured back, carrying the ball 30 times for an even 100 yards. Though his yards per carry average was below the ideal of four, Ingram did score two touchdowns and helped wear down the Carolina defense.

Tight end Jimmy Graham was targeted by Brees and the Carolina defense. The former basketball player whose on-field toughness has been questioned over the past two seasons and had been laid up with a shoulder injury took a nasty shot from Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis in the first quarter shortly after a Brees pass attempt bounced into the hands of Panthers defensive lineman Dwan Edwards.

Graham would be visited by Davis again on a play in which their facemasks would end up getting locked up with the Carolina linebacker jawing at the pro bowl tight end while their gear was getting untangled.

However the cheap shots seemed to have unleashed the beast. Graham finished the game with 7 receptions for 83 yards and the aforementioned touchdown reception in the final seconds of the first half.

Stifled by the NFL from doing his once trademark post-touchdown celebration football dunk over the goal post crossbar, Graham went from NBA to Mid South Wrestling, headbutting the bench like The Missing Link.

Considering what the league has paid out in concussion lawsuits, the commissioner’s office might soon rain on Graham’s latest interpretation “victory dance”.
And though the Saints’ offense managed to gain just over 400 yards on the once vaunted Carolina defense, the real heroes of the game were the Saints’ defense.
It was the defense that bailed the offense out of two first quarter turnovers, forcing the Panthers to punt on both and blanking Carolina in the first half of the game.

Junior Galette had a huge game, sacking quarterback Cam Newtown twice and forcing a fumble and defensive end Cam Jordan followed up his two sack performance against Green Bay four days before with a sack. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks proved disruptive up the middle and also notched a sack.
Granted the Carolina offensive line has been shaky all season, having given up 17 sacks going into the Saints’ contest, the Saints defense did their job and resembled the quarterback hunters from last season.

The Saints’ secondary also got into the act, with westbank cornerback Keenan Lewis frustrating Newton’s attempts to connect with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The Panthers’ star wide receiver and first round draft pick was held to two receptions, though the big bodied wide out dropped a number of passes he should have caught, including one in the end zone.

Even cornerback Corey White got into the act, stalling a Panthers drive deep into Saints’ territory with his second interception in two games.

With the win, the Saints have staked a tenuous claim to the NFC South with a 4-4 record. The good news is they return to the Superdome for a three game stand against what is arguably their toughest opponents remaining on the schedule (San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore) before heading up to Pittsburgh for a late November game.

And the Saints also have a Monday Night Football game in Chicago waiting for them in mid-December.

In contrast, the Panthers have the easiest schedule in the league.

While beating Carolina was a must-win for the Saints, it certainly does not lock up anything as both teams might end up trading first place a few more times before the season closes.

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