By STEVE REED
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — While the Saints didn’t get the first-round bye in the NFC playoffs they coveted, they proved again they can win big games without star players.
And that could come in handy in the postseason.
Drew Brees threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns, the Saints had five interceptions and New Orleans routed the Carolina Panthers 33-7 on Sunday without their top two running backs and fullback to wrap up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
The Saints (12-4) will host the seventh-seeded Chicago Bears in the wild-card round next Sunday at 4:40 p.m. EST.
“We have had various guys go down in a key positions,” Brees said. “We were dealt kind of a crazy hand this week, but it says so much about our team and how we were able to respond.”
Brees sat out five games this season with broken ribs, wide receiver Michael Thomas has missed nine games with an ankle injury and on Sunday the entire Saints running back room was out due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
That meant converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery had to fill in for Alvin Kamara, who tied an NFL record with six TDs in Week 16 vs. the Vikings. He proved up to the task, rushing for 105 yards on 18 carries as the Saints became the first team to sweep the NFC South by going 6-0 since the division was formed in 2002.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said that’s a tribute to coach Sean Payton.
“How he’s handled Drew, Michael (Thomas) and Alvin being out. … He says we’re not going to go into panic mode — and that is a credit for him,” said Sanders, who had 63 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Payton acknowledged there were a lot “moving parts” this week after coaches learned about the COVID-19 tests late in the week.
“It’s happened to other teams,” Payton said. “I was real proud of how some guys stepped up.”
Carolina’s Teddy Bridgewater was benched midway through the third quarter after throwing his second interception in the end zone into double coverage. The former Saints QB finished 13 of 23 for 176 yards and was replaced by P.J. Walker, who was intercepted three times.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said he took Bridgewater out because he felt he was lacking velocity on his throws and wasn’t pushing off his ankle, which he injured earlier in the game.
“I didn’t think he looked real healthy to me,” Rhule said.
The Panthers (5-11) were also without their top two running backs Christian McCaffrey and Mike Davis due to injury and managed just 74 yards rushing.
Now that the Saints are in the postseason, veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins said players need to be extra careful to avoid coming into contact with COVID-19.
“That will come with some sacrifices and being smart and isolating ourselves,” Jenkins said. ”… We are trying our best to limit our exposure because we have what we want right in front of us.”
In the past, the Saints would have earned a first-round bye, but the NFL’s decision to add an extra playoff team in each conference this year means New Orleans will need an extra win to reach the Super Bowl.
“We wanted to end the season continuing to ascend,” Brees said.
Bridgewater finished the season with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and went 4-11 as the team’s starter. He also ran for five TDs, but the Panthers struggled to make winning plays late in games all season with Bridgewater at the helm.
That leaves questions about his future as the Panthers starting QB, especially with the team having a top 10 draft pick in 2021.
“In this business, everything is production based and my production has to be better,” Bridgewater said. “It’s all about executing the game plan. We want to be better in the red zone as a team and I want to be better. I need to do more.”
EARNING A BONUS
Sanders needed eight catches Sunday to reach an incentive clause in his contract and earn $500,000 for catching 60 passes this season. He caught nine passes. “We really wanted to get him eight catches,” Brees said.
SAMUEL JOINS 1K CLUB
Wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent, turned in his second straight 100-yard receiving game with seven catches for 118 yards. Samuel was a fourth Carolina player to eclipse 1,000 yards from scrimmage, marking only the fifth time in the Super Bowl era a team has accomplished that statistical feat.
Saints: LT Terron Armstead left for a play in the fourth quarter, but quickly returned.
Panthers: McCaffrey missed his 13th game of the season due to injury. The Panthers also played without top pass rusher Brian Burns and LT Russell Okung.
Saints: The four-time defending NFC South champions host the Bears next Sunday in the playoffs.
Panthers: After failing to make the playoffs for the third straight season, Carolina will look to the NFL draft to upgrade a number of pressing needs.