Kamara leads Saints past Panthers
NEW ORLEANS — Compared to the often-studied but rarely duplicated Star Wars offense of Sean Payton, this is beginning to look like Student Body Left and Student Body Right, but the New Orleans Saints will accept any nostalgic trip back to the 1960s if it involves another grind-it-out win.
Rookie running back Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II combined for 248 yards from scrimmage and three rushing touchdowns Sunday to power the Saints to a 31-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers and into sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
Winners of nine of their last 10 games, the Saints are now 9-3 and have swept the season series with the Panthers (8-4). The Saints also hold a two-game edge on the Atlanta Falcons (7-5), whom they will play twice in the final four weeks, including a road game Thursday night.
Flashing the offensive balance that has become their calling card in a breakout season, the Saints dominated from the start. Kamara accounted for 126 total yards — 60 yards rushing and 66 receiving — and Ingram added 122 total yards, including a 72-yard dash in the second quarter.
All that made quarterback Drew Brees, who now can do more with less, a very happy camper.
“Offensively, it was good balance,” said Brees, who completed 25-of-34 passes for 269 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas. “We made plays in the running game and the passing game and we scored points. We have to keep pointing in that direction.”
The first drive gave another indication that the Saints are moving in that direction. They took the opening kickoff 68 yards in 10 plays to the Carolina 2-yard line, where on fourth-and-goal, Payton passed up the chip-shot field goal.
Kamara made the gamble pay off by taking a pitch around right end and powering through a solid tackle attempt by linebacker Shaq Thompson for the score.
“You think about scoring a touchdown on your first drive,” Payton said.
Brees said the gamble made a statement that “we’re being aggressive.”
“We came here to win, we came here to put guys in position,” Brees said. “Those are big momentum changers. It also sends a message to the team that we’re going to be aggressive.”
In addition to shedding Thompson on his fourth-down run, Kamara scored from 20 yards out midway through the third quarter, breaking three Carolina tackles on the way to the end zone to put the Saints ahead 28-14.
“He is a monster,” Ingram said of his running mate. “He is always doing his thing. He’s running. He’s catching. He’s a special player. He is definitely rookie of the year.”
The Panthers couldn’t figure out how to slow Kamara.
“We can prepare for whatever we want, but he’s got some elite ability,” Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said of Kamara, the Tennessee rookie who is averaging 7.0 yards per carry, best in the NFL. “They scheme very well. Right now, they are real difficult to defend because of all the other weapons they have. You have to respect their receivers. You have to account for their tight ends. And then, the (two) backs are unbelievable. (Kamara) and Ingram are tremendous backs. Everything starts with the quarterback’s ability. He’s a heck of a triggerman.”
Overall, the Saints rushed for 148 yards on 28 carries against a defense that entered the game No. 3 in stopping the run (83.2 yards per game). The Panthers, who had won four straight and seven of their last eight games, didn’t have any answers.
The Saints took a 31-14 lead with 6:09 left on Wil Lutz’s 31-yard field goal.
The Saints dominated much of the first half, leading 21-7 and heading toward another possible score, when tight end Josh Hill had the ball punched out of his arms by Carolina safety Mike Adams. Linebacker Luke Kuechly recovered the fumble at the New Orleans 45-yard line.
Four plays later, quarterback Cam Newton found running back Christian McCaffrey alone on the left sideline for a 21-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 21-14.
NOTES: New Orleans RB Mark Ingram’s 72-yard run in the second quarter was the second-longest of his career. He had a 75-yarder last year against San Francisco. ... Saints LT Andrus Peat allowed two first-half sacks to Carolina DE Mario Addison. ... With a 32-yard pass to WR Michael Thomas in the fourth quarter, QB Drew Brees posted his 6,126th career completion, moving him past Peyton Manning into second place all-time in the NFL behind Brett Favre. ... RB Alvin Kamara has gained 606 yards on just 86 carries this season, a 7.0-yard average, 1.5 yards better than the next best runner. ... Carolina entered the game having allowed just four rushing TDs all season. The Saints put up three.