Panthers unable to convert pivotal plays in playoff loss

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Panthers quarterback Cam Newton drove his team to the New Orleans 21-yard line, but Saints safety Vonn Bell sacked Newton on fourth-and-23 from the 34-yard line to clinch it.

After relying on a strong running attack most of the season, Brees passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yarder to Ted Ginn Jr. that "broke the seal" on the game in the first half of the Saints' 31-26 wild-card playoff victory over the Carolina Panthers.

The Saints (12-5) advance to play at NFC Central champion Minnesota (13-3 with a bye) at 3:40 p.m. Sunday.

Can Cam Newton take the Carolina Panthers back to the Super Bowl?

Still, the Panthers were in striking distance for the win after a failed gamble by Saints coach Sean Payton, who elected to keep the offense on the field on fourth-and-short with two minutes remaining.

"(Payton) said, 'You want to go for it or punt?'" Brees said. But, never fear. The Drew Brees who many have said is past his prime came out to play. Surely there isn't going to be a week's worth of "Bountygate" stories leading up to this matchup.

That's how chaotic the final moments of Sunday's Wild-Card game between the Saints and the Carolina Panthers proved to be at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles was more effective as a runner than passer, finishing with 89 yards on nine carries as the Jags won their first playoff game since 2007.

The officiating crew, led by Tony Corrente, did not have a good showing on the final drive of the game and it could have been worse if the Saints sideline had not reminded assistant officials that a late intentional grounding call against the Panthers required a 10-second run-off, leaving Carolina with only 24 seconds to score.

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"Yeah, I wanted to play Carolina because I want to see how they operate", Lattimore said. But he ran for a team-high 88 yards and put Jacksonville ahead by hitting tight end Ben Koyack for a one-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.

Jordan called the Saints' red-zone stops "huge".

Kaelin Clay dropped a sure touchdown pass from Newton on the ensuing third-down play, and Graham Gano missed a 25-yard field goal on fourth down.

"It's the last step before you go out on your own in practice", Connor said. "(We're) explaining it to the young guys and the guys who haven't witnessed playoff football. "Clearly we knew coming in that they were going to be a tough out". "I think we've shown offensively that we have a lot of ways to be effective, a lot of weapons to spread the ball around". He had only thrown for over 300 yards three times in 2017.

When it takes four seconds to decide whether to throw a flag on a blatant pass interference, in which the cornerback tackled the receiver by the ankles before the ball arrived, the officiating has to be questioned.

Shortly after, Brees threw a 46-yard completion to Michael Thomas for a first-and-goal at the 5.

Offensively, the Saints have evolved as well, particularly with the emergence of versatile running back Alvin Kamara, who put up regular-season numbers (728 yards and eight TDs rushing, 826 yards and five TDs receiving and a kickoff return TD) worthy of rookie-of-the-year consideration.

Cam Newton threw a fourth quarter strike to Greg Olsen, only for Alvin Kamara to respond again, and another to Christian McCaffrey - a handsome 56-yard touchdown that saw the rookie blaze a trail into the endzone.

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