Saints' narrow escape over Panthers leads to NFC South runaway

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints can’t feel good about the way they kept trying to let the Carolina Panthers back in the game Sunday.

Ugly or not, they have to feel great about the fact that they have now essentially slammed the door shut on the NFC South race.

Thanks to Sunday’s 34-31 survival in the Superdome, the Saints (9-2) are now four games ahead of the Panthers (5-6) with five weeks left in the regular season.

They’ll have to turn around quickly before playing at Atlanta (3-8) on Thanksgiving night. And they’ll probably get a well-deserved lambasting from the coaching staff between now and then. But at least they can do it with their playoff lives well in hand.

Credit Saints kicker Wil Lutz for nailing the 33-yard field goal to win the game as time expired. Credit the defense for holding up for a total of six plays near the goal line in the final minutes to force a field goal that Panthers kicker Joey Slye wound up missing. And credit the offense for making enough big plays throughout the day to create the cushion in the first place.

But the Saints need to play a lot cleaner in December and January if they want to have any shot at playing in February.

Thomas wins battle of non-QB MVPs: As they have all season, Saints WR Michael Thomas and Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey dominated the game as both continued to make strong cases for a non-QB to be considered for the league’s MVP award. Thomas had 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown – including a huge 24-yard catch on the game-winning field goal drive. He now has 104 on the season. McCaffrey, meanwhile, had 133 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.

Troubling trend: Again, the Saints imploded with costly penalties -- none more damaging than DE Cameron Jordan ’s personal foul with 3:26 remaining in the first half. Jordan inexplicably swung his arm at quarterback Kyle Allen after the whistle, even though the Saints had recorded a sack on the play and were about to force a punt. He explained later that he was trying to punch the ball loose, but he hit Allen instead. As a result, the Panthers got a fresh set of downs and wound up running out the clock with a touchdown drive. “It’s not about being malicious after the [whistle]. It’s about going full-go between snap to whistle. And I feel like I heard the whistle late after I was trying to go for the ball,” Jordan said. “But you can never hurt your team, so that’s on me. I thought I did a clean punch to the ball, but you realize quarterbacks are quarterbacks.”

The Saints were charged with 12 penalties for 123 yards and had five others that were either declined or offsetting. That list also included a rare pass-interference call that was issued against the Saints in the final minutes after a replay review (they almost became victims of the rule they inspired).

And it included an offensive-pass-interference call against Saints tight end Jared Cook that Saints coach Sean Payton tried and failed to overturn via replay.

“It wasn’t our best game, and by far it wasn’t their best game,” Payton said when asked about having to overcome so many penalties. “And quite honestly, it wasn’t New York’s best game (a reference to where replays are reviewed at the NFL’s officiating headquarters).

“Look, I’m not gonna get into it on the replay relative to the fouls, the [replay rule] change that took place in the offseason. But sitting in on every one of those meetings, I don’t know that it’s exactly what we discussed, where we are today with it. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not. But we’ve gotta be able to adjust to it.”

Troubling trend, Part 2: The Saints really missed injured CB Marshon Lattimore this time, with Panthers receiver DJ Moore busting loose for catches of 52 and 51 yards. They were the sixth and seventh longest catches the Saints had allowed all season. Lattimore could return from his hamstring injury Thursday after he practiced on a limited basis this past Friday.

Promising trend: The continued emergence of Cook as a third weapon behind Thomas and Alvin Kamara is providing a much-needed boost to the Saints’ offense. Cook finished with six catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. His day would have been even bigger if not for an offensive-pass-interference call that wiped out a 42-yard catch. And Drew Brees targeted Cook three times in the end zone.