Saints clamp down on Panthers
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — New Orleans put the clamps on Cam Newton as the Saints beat the Carolina Panthers, 12-9, on Monday night to take a big step toward locking up home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
The Saints’ defense, which has been among the best in the league the last six weeks, held the former MVP to 131 yards passing, sacked him four times, and forced two turnovers on a night when Drew Brees and the offense couldn’t get much going.
Alvin Kamara had 103 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, and Brees had 203 yards passing for the Saints (12-2), who took a one-game lead in the NFC over the Rams. The Saints close the season at home against Pittsburgh and Carolina; the Rams visit Arizona and host San Francisco.
‘‘I believe in us, game in and game out, first quarter to fourth quarter,’’ Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said. ‘‘If it comes down to a crucial play, I believe in us.’’
The Saints held an opponent to 17 points or fewer for a sixth straight game.
Carolina’s only scores came off a trick play on fourth down — a 50-yard touchdown pass from running back Christian McCaffrey to tight end Chris Manhertz — and an interception return by Donte Jackson on a 2-point conversion attempt.
The Saints limited Carolina (6-8) to 247 yards and 13 first downs as Newton struggled throwing the ball more than 10 yards down the field with a sore right shoulder.
Newton said his shoulder simply isn’t getting better — or worse — and he refused to blame the injury, saying, ‘‘I have to be better.’’
‘‘Our defense played a hell of a game and we have to reward them,’’ Newton said. ‘‘We had two turnovers in the red zone and that comes down to execution.’’
The Panthers have lost six straight and are all but eliminated from playoff contention. They’re 1½ games behind the Vikings and one game behind the Eagles and Redskins for the second NFC wild-card spot with two games remaining.
The loss extended the Panthers’ streak of never having posted back-to-back winning seasons since joining the NFL in 1995.
The Panthers struck first after offensive coordinator Norv Turner dug into his bag of tricks.
On a fourth and 2 from midfield, McCaffrey got a handoff, took a step toward the line, then stepped back and lofted a perfect pass over the middle to Manhertz, who was 15 yards behind the defense. Manhertz trotted into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
It was McCaffrey’s first career pass attempt, although he threw two TD passes while at Stanford. He became the first non-QB to throw a TD pass in Panthers history.
McCaffrey broke DeAngelo Williams’s single-season franchise record of 1,636 yards from scrimmage with a rush in the first quarter. He finished with 110 yards rushing and receiving.
The Saints responded with two field goals by Wil Lutz and appeared on the verge of taking the lead before halftime, but James Bradberry intercepted Brees’s tipped pass and returned it to Saints territory. Carolina’s subsequent drive ended when Eli Apple intercepted Newton in the end zone with 10 seconds left in the half.
‘‘I knew they were going to take a shot,’’ Apple said. ‘‘They ran a fade route. I just tried to get my head around and make a play on the ball.’’
The Panthers held the Saints in check for most of the third quarter, but the game changed when Panthers receiver D.J. Moore fumbled on an inside handoff. The Saints pounced, capping an 84-yard drive with a 16-yard TD run by Kamara to make it 12-7 early in the fourth quarter. The Saints went for 2, but Brees’s toss was intercepted by Jackson, who took it back nearly 100 yards.
A fumble by Tommylee Lewis near the goal line turned into a touchback and gave Carolina one last chance to tie the game with 1:44 remaining. But the Panthers couldn’t move the ball and turned it over on downs.