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Vintage Drew Brees Beat the Panthers, but the Saints’ Run Game Was Noticeably Absent

New Orleans still has a prolific passing attack, but they’ll need Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to beat the Vikings

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

It turns out Drew Brees and the Saints are still pretty damn great at passing the football.

Though the Saints’ 2017 season belonged to Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara—New Orleans’s dynamic rushing duo that combined for more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage and formed the top-ranked rushing attack by DVOA—the team’s 31-26 wild-card win over the Panthers served as a reminder that the squad fields one of the NFL’s scariest passing offenses, too.

Head coach Sean Payton and the Saints virtually abandoned the run in Sunday’s win, giving Kamara and Ingram a combined 19 carries while letting Brees sling the ball 33 times. What makes that pass-rush split more interesting is that this was a wire-to-wire victory for the Saints; even as the team had every reason to try to burn clock, Payton and Brees stuck to the strategy that helped them break records and win Super Bowl XLIV.

It’s the type of postseason head fake that would have left fans frustrated and confused had the Saints lost—they very nearly did when the Panthers drove to the New Orleans 21-yard line late in the fourth quarter but failed to score—but in victory, could leave them feeling more confident than ever. Though Brees has had one of his least-impressive seasons from a statistical standpoint, he’s still one of the NFL’s most gifted passers and delivered one of the best playoff performances of his career here. His 11.4 yards per attempt are a personal postseason best, and his 115.2 passer rating (third) and 376 passing yards (fourth) were near career-bests as well. It helps when the 38-year-old can utilize play-action fakes (which are so effective only because of the threat Ingram and Kamara pose) to find open receivers as he did to connect with tight end Josh Hill in the second quarter:

Or that he still has the mobility to extend a play just enough to find a wide-open Michael Thomas:

Speaking of Thomas, it’s easy to forget that New Orleans has essentially four superstars on offense. The second-year pro may just be the best receiver Brees has ever worked with and hauled in eight of his nine targets on Sunday for 131 yards.

But while Brees’s impressive performance and the Saints’ win proves just how multifaceted and dangerous the team’s offense can be, there was really no reason to ditch the running game. This was New Orleans’s third victory over Carolina this season, and previously the Saints had run roughshod over the Panthers with 149 yards rushing in Week 3 and 148 yards in Week 13. This week, the team put up just 41 yards on the ground, and it was the closest result of any of the three matchups. Had the Saints stuck to the run throughout the game, it’s conceivable that they could have burned enough clock that Carolina never got the chance to be in that would-be-game-winning situation.

The Saints aren’t the only team to shy away from their running game this postseason: The Rams gave Todd Gurley just 14 carries in their loss to the Falcons, the Chiefs gave NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt just 11 totes, and even the Panthers handed the ball to Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey just a combined 17 times. The key difference is that New Orleans is moving on to the divisional round.

But the lesson seems clear: Though the Saints are still one of the most dangerous passing teams in the league, they’ll need to re-establish their running game against the Vikings or risk being eliminated like the other three teams that thought they could pass their way through the playoffs.