Saints, Drew Brees heating up despite missing out on NFC's top seed

The New Orleans Saints didn't get the perfect storm they needed Sunday to land the NFC's No. 1 seed.

But they certainly did their part with a 33-7 road rout of the Carolina Panthers while settling for the No. 2 seed and a home date with the Chicago Bears (8-8) next weekend. The Saints (12-4) became the first team ever to sweep the NFC South, going a perfect 6-0 against their division rivals this season.

At least the Saints will now enter the playoffs with some serious momentum after they also trounced the Minnesota Vikings 52-33 last week. Quarterback Drew Brees' performance was the most encouraging on Sunday, as he seems to have regained his rhythm in his third start back from 11 broken ribs and a punctured lung.

But the entire Saints team was impressive Sunday, considering they were playing without running back Alvin Kamara (reserve/COVID-19 list), wide receiver Michael Thomas (ankle injury), safeties Marcus Williams (ankle) and C.J. Gardner-Johnson (reserve/COVID-19) and several other key backups.

"Obviously we wanted to end the season continuing to ascend," said Brees, who completed 22 of 32 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns. "And I think for me, just continuing to feel healthier and more comfortable each and every week. I know we get Mike Thomas back -- I think the last three weeks being down have been great for him.

The Saints could potentially get Kamara back, too, if he meets all of the COVID protocols this week. However, he cannot practice or be with the team before Sunday.

"Obviously we've endured a lot throughout the season, with injuries and having various guys down at key positions throughout," Brees said. "But it says so much about our team with the way that we've been able to respond."

The defense came up with a whopping five interceptions, including one from cornerback Grant Haley in the end zone in his 2020 debut. And the offense leaned heavily on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, WR/RB Ty Montgomery and versatile backup QB Taysom Hill -- who ran the ball seven times for 41 yards and a TD before walking to the locker room in the fourth quarter with an unspecified injury.

Pivotal players: Several guys came up clutch for the Saints in bigger roles than they have been used to playing this season -- but perhaps none bigger than Montgomery and Haley. Montgomery, who began his career as a receiver and running back with the Green Bay Packers, ran for 105 yards on 18 carries. It was the first time he had double-digit carries in a game since 2017 and his first 100-yard game since 2016 with the Packers.

"It felt really good. I was really excited just to get another chance to play football. It feels like it's been three seasons since I've really had a opportunity to do that," said Montgomery, who pointed out that he actually got his start as a running back in a similar situation in 2016, when the Packers had to move him from receiver to replace injured running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks.

Montgomery began the week practicing with the Saints' receivers before his role changed by the day (Kamara was ruled out Friday, then backups Latavius Murray and Dwayne Washington were ruled out Saturday). He said it felt like college again, pulling an all-nighter to cram for a test.

"Ty was fantastic tonight," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He played exceptionally well. I'm proud of him."

Haley, a third-year undrafted pro, spent his first two seasons with the New York Giants before spending most of this season on New Orleans' practice squad. He played a key role in the slot throughout Sunday's game in addition to the clutch interception. The Saints' other interceptions were snagged by safety Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety P.J. Williams and cornerback Ken Crawley.

If it wasn't for bad luck ... Because of playoff expansion, the Saints won't get a playoff bye this season despite earning the NFC's No. 2 seed. They also made history in both 2011 and 2019 by winding up as the No. 3 seed in the NFC despite a 13-3 record. That has happened a total of only three times since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule. The good news is they will be hosting a Bears team they beat in Chicago earlier this season -- 26-23 in overtime in Week 8.