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What the Saints’ win means in a tight NFC South playoff race

New Orleans bounced back from last week’s loss to lock up an important win over a division rival.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing changes with the NFC South standings after the Saints’ 31-21 win over the Panthers on Sunday. Except, that is, that the Saints improved to 9-3 and strengthened their hold on the division.

There was plenty riding on this game for the Saints and the Panthers. Both teams came into it 8-3. The Saints were still on top of the South thanks to their Week 3 win over Carolina, but now they’ve put a full win between themselves and the Panthers, too.

The Panthers got a couple of lucky breaks. Luke Kuechly forced a fumble in the second quarter. The Panthers were able to turn that into a score to narrow the Saints’ lead to 21-14 going into the half. Saints kicker Wil Lutz also missed a field goal in the third quarter.

But New Orleans ran away with it in the second half, anyway. They tacked on another touchdown in the third quarter when Alvin Kamara left the entire Panthers defense in his wake en route to a 20-yard touchdown. A Lutz field goal gave them a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, and the stingy Saints defense didn’t let the Panthers in the end zone in the second half until just under four minutes remained in the game.

The win gives the Saints a little breathing room heading into a couple of tough tests to wrap up the season. New Orleans has to turn around and face the Falcons in Atlanta on Thursday Night Football. It’s especially challenging for the Saints to have to travel and get ready to play Atlanta just four days after playing in a late afternoon game.

The Falcons are fresh off of a 14-9 loss at home to the Vikings, in which they failed to score a single touchdown. They’ll be preparing for the Saints on a short week, also. Atlanta didn’t do its playoff standing any favors in Sunday’s loss. The Falcons fall to 7-5 and are just on the outside looking in for now, unless the Seahawks lose to the Eagles on Monday night.

If the Eagles win, the Falcons should get penciled back into that final NFC wild card spot for now. But the tail end of the Falcons’ schedule is packed with divisional opponents. They’ve got the Saints on Thursday, then the Buccaneers, then the Saints again on Christmas Eve, and they wrap things up with the Panthers on New Year’s Eve.

The Buccaneers haven’t been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet, but they’re looking like the longest of long shots after losing to the Packers 26-20 in overtime on Sunday. The Saints’ win on Sunday over Carolina makes them the clear leaders to win the division. The Panthers should still have a shot at a wild card bid. The Falcons probably need to win out to have a shot, and the Buccaneers will likely be watching the postseason from home yet again.

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