CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — On a night when the high-powered offense was stuck in neutral, the New Orleans Saints still found a way to grind out a 12-9 win over Carolina behind their ever-improving defense.
That could bode well for these Saints (12-2) as they prepare to make a run at the Super Bowl.
For years, they've relied on star quarterback Drew Brees to score a lot of points, put up big yardage and win games for them. But suddenly the Saints have a defense that is not only keeping them close when the offense sputters, but might be one of the best in the NFL. New Orleans has not allowed more than 17 points in any of its last six games.
"That's what the great teams find a way to do," said Brees, who was limited to 203 yards passing and intercepted once Monday night. "Despite what happens in the first three quarters or maybe the mistakes that were made prior to that, they just make the plays you need to make to win the game."
Brees likes that the Saints have found many different ways to win, even though not all of them have been pretty. The 12 points against the Panthers marked the fewest for New Orleans in a victory since 1998.
For most of the season the Saints relied on an electrifying offense, scoring 40 points or more six times. But recently it is the defense that has stepped up to make big plays.
"There's a lot to be said for that — finding ways to win," Brees said. "Battle-tested. These last two weeks, we've had to win in the fourth quarter, had to come back and win in the fourth quarter. On the road, divisional games, those are going to be hard-fought. Those are going to be tough and the great teams find a way. Our guys believe we're all going to step up, we're going to do this together, somebody's going to make a play."
The Saints didn't make a lot of plays Monday, but they made enough.
There was Eli Apple's interception of Cam Newton's pass in the end zone with 10 seconds left before halftime. There was Von Bell's strip of wide receiver D.J. Moore on an inside handoff and A.J. Klein's recovery, which led to the go-ahead score. There were four players who sacked Newton — and none were named Cam Jordan. Alvin Kamara had a 50-yard kickoff return.
The little plays all add up.
"We are playing hard and playing for each other," Apple said.
Unlike some of the NFL's other top teams — namely, the Rams and Chiefs — the Saints found a way to grind it out without their A game on offense this week.
It didn't matter that the offense failed to gain more than 30 yards on seven of its first eight drives. It didn't matter because New Orleans could count on its defense.
Jordan called it the best he's ever played on.
"I believe in us, game in and game out, first quarter to fourth quarter," Jordan said. "If it comes down to a crucial play, I believe in us. If we need a turnover, I believe in us."
New Orleans has already wrapped up the NFC South title and can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory in either of its last two games, both at home, against Pittsburgh and Carolina.
Looking for their second Super Bowl championship in a decade, the well-rounded Saints might just be the favorites heading into the postseason.
"We were just trying to stack weeks because you know you want to play your best ball in December," said Bell, who also had seven tackles and a sack. "That's what people remember and going into this last stretch we wanted to finish strong."
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