CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — New Orleans put the clamps on Cam Newton, and the Saints beat the Carolina Panthers 12-9 on Monday night to take a big step toward locking up home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
The Saints’ defense, which has been among the best in the league the last six weeks, held the former MVP to 131 yards passing, sacked him four times and forced two turnovers on a night when Drew Brees and the offense couldn’t get much going.
Alvin Kamara had 103 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, and Brees had 203 yards passing for the Saints (12-2), who took a one-game lead in the NFC over the Rams. The Saints close the season at home against Pittsburgh and Carolina; the Rams visit Arizona and host San Francisco.
Carolina’s only scores came off a trick play on fourth down — a 50-yard touchdown pass from running back Christian McCaffrey to tight end Chris Manhertz — and an interception return by Donte Jackson on a 2-point conversion attempt.
The Saints limited Carolina (6-8) to 247 yards and 13 first downs as Newton struggled throwing the ball more than 10 yards down the field with a sore right shoulder.
The Panthers have lost six straight and are all but eliminated from playoff contention. They’re 1½ games behind the Vikings and one game behind the Eagles and Redskins for the second NFC wild card spot with two games remaining.
The Panthers struck first after offensive coordinator Norv Turner dug into his bag of tricks.
On a fourth-and-2 from midfield, McCaffrey got a handoff, took a step toward the line, then stepped back and lofted a perfect pass over the middle to Manhertz, who was 15 yards behind the defense. Manhertz trotted into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
It was McCaffrey’s first career pass attempt, although he threw two TD passes while at Stanford. He became the first non-QB to throw a TD pass in Panthers history.
The Saints responded with two field goals by Wil Lutz and appeared on the verge of taking the lead before halftime, but James Bradberry intercepted Brees’ tipped pass and returned it to Saints territory. Carolina’s subsequent drive ended when Eli Apple intercepted Newton in the end zone with 10 seconds left in the half.
The Panthers held the Saints in check for most of the third quarter, but the game changed when Panthers receiver D.J. Moore fumbled on an inside handoff. The Saints pounced, capping an 84-yard drive with a 16-yard TD run by Kamara to make it 12-7 early in the fourth quarter. The Saints went for 2, but Brees’ toss was intercepted by Jackson, who took it back nearly 100 yards.
A fumble by Tommylee Lewis near the goal line turned into a touchback and gave Carolina one last chance to tie the game with 1:44 remaining. But the Panthers couldn’t move the ball and turned it over on downs.
Panthers safety Eric Reid continued to kneel during the national anthem to protect social and racial injustice.
McCAFFREY SETS MARK
McCaffrey broke DeAngelo Williams’ single-season franchise record of 1,636 yards from scrimmage with a rush in the first quarter. He finished with 110 yards rushing and receiving.
The loss extended the Panthers’ streak of never having posted back-to-back winning seasons since joining the NFL in 1995.
During pregame warmups, Newton wore cleats that advertised a North Carolina winery and a picture of a broom snapped in half. Newton received a bottle of “Jordan” wine from Saints defensive end Cam Jordan and a broom from someone on the Saints after New Orleans swept Carolina in three games last season. Whatever message he intended to send didn’t work out so well.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen had surgery on his right foot Monday, his second procedure on the foot in the last 16 months. Olsen wrote on Instagram that “surgery went well and I am on my way towards a full recovery.”
Saints: Center Max Unger left the game in the first half after being evaluated for a concussion and did not return. He was replaced by Cameron Tom.
Panthers: Newton struggled with his shoulder throughout the game, forcing him to throw short passes — many of which were off the mark — even when the Panthers needed to take shots down the field. Despite the injury, coach Ron Rivera said he is not considering sitting down Newton next week.
Saints: Host the Steelers on Sunday.