Saints defeat Panthers for the third time this season

It took a little longer than expected, and took a couple years off Saints fans’ lives, but New Orleans defeated the Carolina Panthers, 31-26, Sunday in the final wild-card weekend playoff game. New Orleans now advances to face the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round, and Carolina heads home, but not without a healthy dose of regret.

New Orleans owned most of this game, but Carolina made it interesting in the final seconds, thanks in large part to a curious, and would-have-been-debatable, decision by Saints coach Sean Payton. But although Cam Newton led the Panthers to the shadow of the end zone and what would have been a last-second, go-ahead touchdown, he effectively ended the game flat on his back, the victim of a voracious Saints defense.

The game turned early on a pivotal four-play span. On the 14th play of a 63-yard Carolina drive, Newton rifled a pass into the end zone, into the hands of Kaelin Clay … and right through the hands of Kaelin Clay. A guaranteed seven points vanished, and when kicker Graham Gano missed a chip-shot 25-yard field goal, the Panthers came away with nothing after getting deep into New Orleans territory.

Saints linebacker Jonathan Freeny (55) celebrates his sack of Carolina’s Cam Newton. New Orleans got to him four times in Sunday’s tight NFC wild-card game. (AP)

The Saints then took Carolina’s misery and multiplied it; on the second play after the missed field goal, quarterback Drew Brees found Ted Ginn Jr. streaking down the right sideline for what turned into a brilliant 80-yard touchdown. A potential 14-point swing deflated the Panthers, and Carolina spent the rest of the half trading field goals for touchdowns.

After another pair of dueling field goals, Carolina threatened early in the fourth quarter, with Newton finally locating his favorite target, Greg Olson, for a 14-yard touchdown to draw the Panthers within five points. The Panthers forced a punt on New Orleans’ next possession, and then Cam Newton had the ball in his hands with about 10 minutes remaining and a possible go-ahead score looming before him.

But then came the next vicious momentum swing. Six-foot-4, 300-pound tackle David Onyemata crushed Newton on a sack, and the hit drove a shard of Newton’s protective visor toward his eye. Newton briefly left the game and cleared a medical-tent examination, but while that was going on, the Saints were once again crafting a masterful drive. Brees found Michael Thomas for a 46-yard gain, and two plays later, Alvin Kamara bulldogged his way into the end zone to put New Orleans ahead 31-19.

Oh, but the game wasn’t done quite yet. Newton returned to the field and needed only three plays to send the Panthers back into the end zone, courtesy of a defense-breaking 56-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey.

Brees tried to chew up the last of the clock, and he succeeded in devouring Carolina’s timeouts, but the Saints drive stalled at midfield.

And then came the game’s most crucial call. The Saints opted to go for it on fourth down at Carolina’s 47, gambling that Brees could get 2 yards rather than punting the ball deeper into Carolina territory. On a fourth-and-2, Brees threw the ball up, and Carolina’s Mike Adams reeled in the ball for what ended up being a 16-yard loss of field position.

Newton marched the Panthers from his own 31 to New Orleans’ 21, but two separate no-call incompletions on end zone shots, combined with a crucial intentional grounding penalty, left the Panthers facing fourth-and-23 with 11 seconds remaining. Vonn Bell burst through the line and obliterated Newton and the last of Carolina’s chances.

New Orleans will now deploy its multifaceted attack against Minnesota’s vaunted D. Carolina, meanwhile, ends the season with a sense of what could have been.

Drew Brees and the Saints are celebrating. (Getty)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.