The stalemate atop the NFC South only lasted six days.
That’s as long as the Carolina Panthers could hold on to at least a portion of the divisional lead they earned by winning their eighth game in a row last week and watching the New Orleans Saints drop a game in Seattle to the Seahawks.
The Saints and Panthers were locked with identical 9-3 records for such a short period of time that it’s hard to imagine what the fuss was about.
Billed as the best matchup in the division this season, the Saints scored 31 unanswered points after falling behind 6-0 and punished the Panthers 31-13 in front of a rowdy Superdome crowd Sunday night. New Orleans held sole control of the NFC South for 12 weeks prior to allowing Carolina a taste of the top spot last week.
Now control firmly sits with the Saints, and there’s a good chance it will stay that way.
With three weeks remaining in the regular season, these two teams will meet once more in Week 16 in Charlotte. However, Carolina will need more than a win there to wrangle the division away from New Orleans.
If Carolina beats New Orleans and both teams handle their business in their other two games, they’ll finish with identical 12-4 records. At that point, tiebreaking procedures will take over. The Panthers and Saints would have the same win-loss percentage in the division and among common games, but the next tiebreaker is conference record.
New Orleans would have four losses in our scenario, two of which came against AFC squads, giving the Saints a 10-2 record in conference. Carolina’s record would be 9-3 in the conference, giving the Saints the division and likely the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
So, the Panthers have a tough road ahead—and that’s if they can beat New Orleans in the rematch game. From what happened on Sunday, that’s not likely.
New Orleans dominated just about every facet of this Week 14 game. The Saints out-gained the Panthers in yardage 373-239 and had eight more first downs.
Defense was supposed to be on display for Carolina, as the Panthers brought a top-three defense into New Orleans.
It was the Saints who absolutely shut down the Panthers, though. Carolina’s 239 yards of total offense made for its lowest total of the season and the Saints sacked quarterback Cam Newton five times, the second-highest total of the season against the Panthers.
On the other side of the football, Drew Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdown passes for the Saints, which were the highest totals the Carolina defense has given up all season in both categories.
Brees methodically moved the ball down the field and through Carolina’s defense. He hit nine different receivers and had five passes of 20 or more yards.
"We just had great balance," Brees said, per ESPN.com. "Marques (Colston) came up with some huge catches, as did Jimmy. The line did a great job ... and the defense did a great job of getting us the ball.
"Here we are, attempting to make another run at it. Obviously, some records and some other things, milestones along the way that you get to share, but I'm just glad to be on the journey with this group of guys."
It’s possible that New Orleans took out the frustration of last week’s loss in Seattle on Carolina. The Saints played somewhat angrily and fired up all night, and no team in the NFL plays better with a chip on its shoulder.
But it’s likelier that the Saints are just the better football team.
Brees and the Saints are far more adept at putting points on the scoreboard, and even though Carolina has a higher-rated defense, New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dialed up pressure all over the field to disrupt the Panthers on offense. Newton was repeatedly under duress and wide receiver Steve Smith was covered and physically manhandled for most of the game.
New Orleans not only showed Carolina it was 18 points better on Sunday, the Saints sent a message to the NFC South’s second-place team.
The path to the divisional crown goes through the Saints and this New Orleans team doesn't care about winning streaks or how good the opposing defense is on paper.