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Saints Squeak By Panthers 16-14

In yet another nail-biter, the Saints barely defeated the Carolina Panthers in the Superdome and improved to 3-1 on the year. Although the statistics would indicate a blowout by New Orleans, the final score says it all–the Saints offense is still trying to find itself.

In the first quarter, it seemed that the team’s offensive struggles were finally about to become nothing more than an ugly memory. For the first time this season, they were actually clicking on all cylinders. The running game looked as sharp and as healthy as it has since the season began behind the fierce running of Ladell Betts and Chris Ivory and Drew Brees was hitting his receivers in stride and moving the ball with relative ease.

But then the unthinkable happened. Lance Moore uncharacteristically lost a fumble on the Panther’s 1-yard line, ending what had been a very productive drive and more critically, kept points off the board. Moore subsequently got into the endzone early in the 2nd quarter, of course, but a second lost fumble in the same quarter by Ivory in Carolina territory marked the beginning of the end of the offense’s total domination of the Panthers’ seemingly inadequate defense.

It wasn’t long after Ivory’s mishap before Carolina’s offense answered back when Jimmy Clausen hit Jonathan Stewart for a 55-yard touchdown reception, tying the game at 7. The Saints would respond with another impressive drive of their own, but had to settle for a field goal upon failing once again to get into the endzone. At halftime, the score was just 10-7 despite the fact that the Saints had chewed up considerable time off the clock and had been in Panther territory four times.

Perhaps the brightest spot of the day was the critical special teams play of Courtney Roby, who came up huge once again with a muffed punt recovery (his second of the season so far) on the Carolina 29 yard line. But to our dismay, the Saints offense failed again to find the endzone, even from that short distance away, leaving Carney to have to kick another field goal.  He ended up kicking three on the day.

It’s also encouraging that Ivory and Betts were indeed able to run the ball with some success.  That was one area I’m sure most people were concerned about coming into the game.  Ivory finished with 12 carries for 67 yards and Betts with 13 carries for 47 yards.  Even though Ivory has lost two crucial fumbles in as many weeks, I still think he’s going to be a very efficient runner for the team–that is once he learns how to hold on to the ball.  As for Betts, he brings the kind of bruising toughness that the running game needs right now.  Both backs ran with authority against Carolina and were very instrumental in the offense’s success.  That’s one positive that I believe they can and will build on and hopefully get back on track sooner rather than later.

The Saints defense also played well.  Other than the long pass and score to Stewart and the very impressive rushing touchdown by DeAngelo Williams, they pretty much held the Panthers to a minimum.  Sedrick Ellis was nothing short of spectacular as he found ways to wreak havoc in Carolina’s backfield.  Remi Ayodele, Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer, Usama Young, Jonathan Vilma, and Malcolm Jenkins all made plays that had a huge impact on limiting the Panthers’ success.

On the flip side, I am still very concerned about all the dropped passes and the offense’s lack of ability to get into the endzone, particularly against some defenses that were clearly undermatched.  I can’t help wondering what is going to happen when we face a team that can score quickly and often.  With the way Brees and company are sputtering in the red zone right now, it’s questionable whether or not our offense will be able to keep pace with a mirror-image of its former self.  You’ve got to figure that there will be times when a field goal won’t be enough to stay in the game or win it.   Will the Saints be able to answer the call?  Right now, it’s anybody’s guess.

I suppose that’s why the win against the Panthers is so unsettling, because it was clearly one that could have gone the other way like the loss to Atlanta last week.  And even though we know that division games are always tougher because of teams’ familiarity with each other, we also know that this game shouldn’t have even been this close.  The Saints offense is virtually out of sync right now.  It’s almost as if the core of its very balance has been shaken off of its axis.  Turnovers, which used to be more commonly associated with our defense, have become habitual; and touchdowns, which we could once count on in abundance, are now more of a luxury.  And all those dropped passes have all but choked the life out of what was once one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. 

At this point, I’m still encouraged though, despite the too-close-for-comfort games.  After all, the Saints could just as easily be 0-4 with the small margins of victory they’ve won by.  But they’ve managed to survive week after week after being battle-tested until the end, all without even playing up to their potential.  With that said, I do believe that they will get it figured out soon.  They showed moments of brilliance against Carolina (who always plays us tough), even giving us a glimpse of the team that just won the Superbowl.  I also believe that their problems are fixable in the short-term.  Despite all the injuries, the dropped passes, and the turnovers, our Saints are still just a missed field goal away from being 4-0 right now.  The injuries are beyond their control, but the dropped passes and the turnovers are unacceptable and should be dealt with accordingly because they are consistently hurting the team. Let’s just hope they can extract the positives from their latest win and use them as motivation to get ready for Arizona next week.  Right now, we’re very glad for the wins; we’d just like them to be a bit more convincing.

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