BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - For the first-time since 2013, the New Orleans Saints captured the NFC South Division title and playoff berth, but there's not a joyous celebration following a 31-24 setback to the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay on Sunday.
As the No. 4 seed in the NFC, New Orleans will host Carolina in the Wildcard playoffs Sunday afternoon and to get to the Super Bowl, the Saints have an easier path, having to get through Philadelphia instead of Minnesota.
What more can you say about the stellar performance of rookie running back Alvin Kamara. He tied the game at seven in the first quarter racing 106-yards on a kickoff return following a Peyton Barber Buccaneers touchdown. He received great blocking and went the distance untouched.
Give Tampa Bay credit., they didn't quit., even after quarterback Jameis Winston tossed three interceptions.
Kamara gave the Saints a 14-7 advantage on a 7-yard TD scamper. He and Mark Ingram became the first running back duo to surpass 15-hundred scrimmage yards in NFL history.
Winston got the Buccaneers within 14-13 on a keeper, but the P-A-T was no good.
Drew Brees hooked up with Kamara on a super 40-yard pass play which led to a Saints field goal propelling New Orleans in front 17-13 in the third quarter.
4th quarter a back breaker for New Orleans. On a punt return Tommylee Lewis had the ball stripped by Josh Robinson of Tampa Bay, Isaiah Johnson was there to scoop it up and raced 7 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Buccaneers grabbed a 20-17 advantage.
Brees and company would drive 92 yards that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Zach Line. Saints held a 24 to 23 lead.
New Orleans needed the defense to step up. However, Tampa Bay ran their two-minute offense to perfection. Winston connected with Chris Godwin for a game winning 39-yard touchdown with 9 seconds remaining. Tampa Bay added a two-point conversion to close out a 31-24 Buccaneers victory.
Despite the setback, New Orleans won the NFC South Division title.
Head coach Sean Payton said, "I think as you start the season it's one of the objectives. You look at the division and you say Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans finished strong this year. Congratulations to all of those teams. They did a good job."
It's now on to the second-season, the playoffs. New Orleans dominated Carolina during the regular season. In Week 3, the Saints crushed the Panthers 34-13. In Week 13 New Orleans prevailed 23-13. It's always difficult to beat a team three times, but with inconsistent play of Panthers quarterback Cam Jordan, New Orleans has a good shot at advancing. However, Jordan has super athletic skills and if the New Orleans defense doesn't contain the shifty quarterback, he could lead his team to a win over the Saints.
Home field advantage is huge and a sellout crowd will provide plenty of emotion and noise to have a negative effect on the Panthers offense.
From all of us here at WLOX...Happy New Year!