Saints finish 13-3 but miss out on first-round bye

The Big Game

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) looks around the playimng fdield during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It turns out 13 wins weren’t enough to earn the New Orleans Saints a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

The runaway winners of the NFC South will have to win an extra game if they hope to reach the Super Bowl. They’ll be the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and host the Vikings next weekend in the wild-card round while the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers get a week to rest.

The Saints were hoping they might get a first-round bye — or possibly even home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — after throttling the reeling Carolina Panthers 42-10 on Sunday. Instead, Saints owner Gayle Benson watched the Packers rally to beat the Lions on a set of TVs in the press box at Bank of America Stadium. Then, after the Saints returned home to Louisiana, they watched the 49ers outlast the Seahawks with a last-second goal-line stand. The Packers, 49ers and Saints all finished 13-3, but the Saints lost out on tiebreakers.

Saints coach Sean Payton said earlier Sunday he was happy with his team’s aggressive approach against Carolina even though he didn’t know how the playoff seedings would shake out.

“It’s hard to play this game if you’re not emotionally and physically ready,” said Payton, who played his starters until late in the third quarter. “There are times when seeding has been established, and we’ve sat players. That’s a different picture. From the minute we got here, we handled it right. Our pregame was on point.”

Drew Brees threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns, Alvin Kamara ran for two scores and A.J. Klein returned an interception for a touchdown as the Saints handed the Panthers their eighth straight loss.

“You always want to be in a position where you control your own destiny,” Brees said. But he later added, “If not, we’re preparing for wherever we’re going to play.”

Brees said the most important thing is that the Saints are clicking as they enter the postseason.

“When you look at the stretch of the past five or six weeks, the emphasis is how do we get better? How do we improve? How do we get ourselves in the best form going into the playoffs?” Brees said.

The only thing that went right for the Panthers (5-11) was Christian McCaffrey joining Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. McCaffrey needed 67 yards receiving coming in and got there with a 17-yard reception late in the third quarter, earning some bear hugs from teammates on the sideline and a standing ovation from the scattered fans remaining in the seats.

“Every year I write down little goals and it is cool when you accomplish one of them,” McCaffrey said. “But once again, and I can’t reiterate this enough, that the most important statistic is winning.”

McCaffrey finished the season with 2,392 yards from scrimmage, third most in NFL history. He left the game late in the third quarter following his 19th touchdown of the season.

Any suspense about the outcome of the game ended much earlier.

The Saints took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards on eight plays to take a 7-0 lead on Kamara’s 15-yard touchdown run. Kamara added a second TD run later in the quarter, and Klein made it a three-touchdown lead when he picked off rookie quarterback Will Grier and returned it 14 yards for a TD early in the second quarter.

Brees added TD passes of 1 yard to Tre’Quan Smith and 21 yards to Jared Cook to make it 35-0 in the second quarter, prompting Panthers interim coach Perry Fewell to remove perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly from the game to prevent injury.

“There are four quarters in a season and we didn’t finish the last eight games very strong, which is disappointing for the players, for the coaches, for the fans, for the organization,” said Fewell, who went 0-4 as Carolina’s interim coach.

GRIER INJURED

Grier left the game in the second quarter with a foot injury, finishing his second NFL start with a 0.0 quarterback rating on 1 of 8 passing for 4 yards. He was replaced by Kyle Allen. The Panthers provided no update on the extent of the injury after the game.

OLSEN’S FINAL GAME?

This might have been the final game for Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who has one year left on his contract but could be a casualty of a rebuilding effort.

FIXING DEFENSE

One area the Panthers will need to address in the offseason is their run defense.

Carolina surrendered 31 touchdowns rushing this season, which tied for the most since the NFL-AFL merger. Carolina came into the game ranked 31st in the league in rushing defense, in part because of injuries to defensive tackles Kawann Short and Dontari Poe.

“It’s about shedding blocks, getting off blocks, whipping the guy in front of you and tackling,” Fewell said. “And we didn’t do that very well.”

IN MEMORIAM

The Panthers held a moment of silence before the game to honor the memory of Carly McCord, who died in a plane crash on Saturday in Lafayette, Louisiana. McCord had served as an in-game reporter for the Saints.

She was on a small plane en route to Atlanta for the College Football Playoff game between LSU and Oklahoma. Her father-in-law is Steve Ensminger, LSU’s offensive coordinator.

INJURIES

Saints: Played without three starters in the secondary — cornerback Eli Apple (ankle) and safeties Vonn Bell (knee) and Marcus Williams (groin).

Panthers: Played without 1,000-yard receiver D.J. Moore (concussion) and linebacker Shaq Thompson (shoulder/foot).

UP NEXT

Panthers: Will make a decision on their next head coach in the coming weeks. Ron Rivera was fired with four games left in the season. Former Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Baylor coach Matt Rhule are candidates along with Fewell, but the Panthers are expected to interview several assistant coaches still in the playoff hunt.

Saints: Will host Minnesota next weekend.

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