With Ingram and Kamara quieted, New Orleans Saints need Brees' brilliance to down Panthers

Newton was great for plucky Panthers but Brees ruled the day

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From the bottom of our hearts, we'd sincerely like to thank the postseason schedule makers for slotting Drew Brees vs. Cam Newton in the weekend finale.

After one of the more putrid playoff quarterbacking performances ever in Jacksonville, Brees was positively brilliant in the Saints' 31-26 shootout win over the Panthers to complete the season trifecta over their division rivals. And it was Newton's refusal to back down not only to Brees' greatness but his own team's self-inflicted wounds that made this a riveting wild-card weekend closer.

Cliché alert: it's tough to beat an opponent three times in a season, and it's darn near impossible without significant adjustments from the previous meetings. Enter Brees and Sean Payton. Their sensational RB tandem did a lot of the heavy lifting this season, with the previous Carolina victories no exception. However, it was evident early on that the future Hall of Fame quarterback would be the main mode of attack vs. a Panthers secondary that slowly regressed in the second half of 2017.

To say Brees was up to the challenge would be a gross understatement: 23-of-33 for 376 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, good for a 115.2 rating and his seventh career 300-yard postseason performance.

After starting 1-of-4 with a pair of three-and-outs, Brees' Saints took advantage of the first of numerous Panthers' squandered opportunities: a dropped touchdown by Kaelin Clay and Graham Gano missing a 25-yard chip shot, amounting to a 14-point swing in the blink of an eye.

Just two plays after Carolina's long drive ended with no points, Brees hit former Panther Ted Ginn — this would be a recurring theme — for an 80-yard lightning strike touchdown and 7-0 lead.

Carolina would answer quickly... with a field goal. The Panthers, No. 17 in the red zone in the regular season, continued stalling inside the Saints' 20 most of the afternoon. They turned their first four trips within New Orleans' 22-yard line into nine points. It wasn't until early in the fourth quarter, on their fifth red zone visit, that Newton found Greg Olsen — the biggest thorn in the Saints' side defensively — for a touchdown and one-score deficit for the first time since late in the first half.

Yet, unlike in the regular season, the Panthers' 'D' did a number on Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, who combined for just 68 yards from scrimmage, a little more than one-third of their regular-season average. The problem? It came at the expense of stopping Brees, who could do no wrong until a late interception on an asinine decision by Payton to go on fourth-and-2 at the Carolina 47 with a five-point lead and two minutes remaining.

The pick ultimately amounted to a short punt, and the famously aggressive Payton's arrogance is somewhat understandable because he spent the first three-and-half quarters watching Brees deconstruct Carolina. From a back-shoulder throw up the seam to Josh Hill for 25 yards to a 46-yard bomb while on the move to Michael Thomas, this was a vintage Brees performance after a season when his greatness was often obscured by Kamara and Ingram.

Credit Newton for a courageous performance. He finished 24-of-40 for 349 yards and two touchdowns, despite taking yet another vicious beating from Cam Jordan and the Saints 'D.'

In fact, Newton temporarily left the game in the fourth quarter to be evaluated for a concussion after getting swallowed by barrelling 300-pounder David Onyemata on a hit to the head. Newton was unable to get off the field on a third-and-17 before dropping to the turf and receiving assistance to the medical tent while Derek Anderson came on for a play.

But Newton promptly returned on the next series, almost immediately connecting with Christian McCaffrey on a 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown. And he narrowly missed completing an epic comeback, which would've been assisted by Payton's fourth-down brain fart.

Gritty stuff from Newton and the Panthers for sure, but on a day defined more by their missed opportunities, Brees could hardly miss a throw. The Saints' relentlessly attacked the middle of the field with Ginn (4-115-1) and Hill (3-49-1). (Can't guard) Mike Thomas, with a game-high 131 yards on eight grabs, was just as his Twitter handle suggests.

Payton's offense was so lethal in rolling up 31 points and 410 yards, it again exposed Pro Bowl LBs Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Davis bit badly on a playaction fake that turned into an easy nine-yard touchdown from Brees to Hill; Kuechly whiffed trying to tackle Zach line on a fullback dive for the next touchdown.

The Saints now head to Minnesota, where they were blown out, 29-19, way back in Week 1. That was with Sam Bradford behind center for the Vikings and Dennis Allen behind the eye ball coordinating the New Orleans 'D.' After getting steamrolled by the Patriots one week later, it transformed en route to becoming the league's most improved 'D.' But the Saints' secondary had way too many gaffes Sunday, particularly with Olsen, and face a much better skill group challenge from the Vikings.

And it's an even bigger step up in class for Brees and Co. from a Panthers 'D' with issues on its back end to the NFL's top-ranked unit in points, total yards and passing yards allowed. If Brees can maintain his sensational Sunday form, opposing improbable Vikings starter Case Keenum, well, the Saints have to like their chances.