By BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints face the prospect of seeing their season end where it began.
That is, unless they’ve improved enough to turn the tables on the Minnesota Vikings, who beat New Orleans convincingly in Week 1.
“That feels like ages and ages ago,” Brees said of the 29-19 loss in Minnesota, describing the difference between the Saints then and now as “night and day.”
The Saints (12-5) rebounded from double-digit losses to the Vikings and New England Patriots in their first two games to win the NFC South. Now they’re on to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs after holding off Carolina (11-6), 31-26 on Sunday.
New Orleans’ next game comes one day before Brees turns 39 years old, and will come one week after the veteran quarterback reminded everyone he’s still capable of big passing days if opposing defenses sell out to stop the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
Brees completed 23 passes to eight different receivers for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Only two of his completions went to Ingram or Kamara, who accounted for only 68 yards from scrimmage combined.
“We trust our system. We trust each other and what we proved is we can beat you in a lot of different ways,” Brees said. “There’s no better feeling than knowing you just won, not only won but won a playoff game as a team and now you’re on to the next one.”
His touchdown passes of 80 yards to Ted Ginn and 9-yards to tight end Josh Hill helped New Orleans open up a 21-6 lead late in the first half. Michael Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards, including a 46-yarder that set up Kamara’s short TD run in the fourth quarter.
For the Panthers, it was an excruciating end to the season. Beaten soundly by the Saints twice before this season, they pushed New Orleans to the brink in the third matchup.
Aided by the return of star tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers drove inside the Saints 22-yard line five times, only to come away with nothing twice and field goals three other times.
“That was the difference in the game,” said Olsen, who had eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. “We moved the ball pretty much at will the whole game. We just struggled in the first half in the red zone and it turned out to be points that we kept chasing.”
Still, the Panthers had a first down on the Saints 21 with 41 seconds left. It wasn’t until Newton’s intentional grounding in the face of end Cameron Jordan’s pass rush, followed by Vonn Bell’s sack on a safety blitz on fourth down, that the Saints sealed the victory.
Some other things to know from the Saints’ win:
GETTING PRESSURE: The Saints sacked Newton four times. Jordan, Bell, linebacker Jonathan Freeny and defensive tackle David Onyemata each had one. Jordan, a newly named All-Pro, also tipped two passes and might have made his biggest play when he ran through two blockers to force Newton’s intentional grounding. Their pass rush could be a factor against Minnesota QB Case Keenum, who’s been sacked 17 times in Minnesota’s last six games.
Certainly, Jordan expects a different game that Week 1, when the Saints had one sack — by Jordan — against then-starter Sam Bradford.
“We had a young defense that was still learning,” Jordan said. “We’ve clearly turned the corner. We’ve clearly turned to the next chapter. Now we’re into the playoffs and we’ve got bigger and better goals.”
SECONDARY CONCERNS: While the Saints’ defense has been far better this season than last, the secondary has looked more vulnerable lately. Against Carolina, they allowed Newton to pass for 349 yards, his second most all season. New Orleans struggled to cover Olsen and versatile running back Christian McCaffrey, who six catches for 101 yards, including a 56-yard score.
END ZONE PROTECTION: While the Saints defense gave up 413 net yards, their ability to keep Carolina out of the end zone was crucial.
“It’s better to hold them to three than six,” Bell said. “We held them in the red zone and we won the game.”
ROAD WOES: While the Saints won their sixth straight home playoff game and improved to 5-0 in the Superdome in postseason games under coach Sean Payton, they’ve won only one road playoff game in their history. That was during the 2013 season, when they won a wild-card round game at Philadelphia before losing the next week at Seattle.
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