CLEVELAND -- The New Orleans Saints have invested multiple draft picks and salary cap space in free agency on former Ohio State Buckeyes, and those investments paid dividends in their 31-26 win over the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday night.
Former Buckeyes receivers Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. both eclipsed the 100-yard mark with the latter scoring a touchdown, and then, safety Vonn Bell registered a game-high nine total tackles, including the game-clinching sack late in the fourth quarter of the Wildcard Playoffs matchup of NFC South Division teams.
“It is really a blessing,” Ginn said. “It was a blessing for us. We put a lot of hard work into this week. We just tried to come out and execute. It wasn't as easy as we wanted it to be, but the Saints came out on top in this situation. We will just get ready for next week.”
The former Buckeyes got involved early, as after a missed Panthers field goal, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Ginn. That pass put the Saints in front of the Panthers, 7-0, in the first quarter and they never trailed in the game.
Ginn started the play on the far left side of the formation and ran a post route over the middle of the field. After hauling in Brees' throw at the Carolina 39-yard line, he high-stepped his way out of a tackle attempt and raced the final 30 yards untouched for the score.
“That was huge,” Brees said. “They stopped us on the first two drives, and then, for us to come up with that big play, I think it blew the whole thing wide open. I think it broke the seal for us offensively, and obviously, got the crowd rolling.”
Saints coach Sean Payton added, “It was a great read by Drew. It was kind of an inside-go with a deep-in cut and coverage kind of collapsed on Mike (Thomas). You watch that closely on film, Drew kind of shuffled quickly to his right and found Ginn behind the coverage. It was a heck of a play by him.”
Ginn finished the game with 115 yards and the touchdown on four receptions, and when he was not catching passes from Brees, it was another former Buckeyes receiver, Thomas, who was helping the offense move the ball down the field.
Thomas turned his eight catches into 131 yards, including a 46-yard reception that set up a two-yard rushing touchdown from Alvin Kamara midway through the fourth quarter.
“In the playoffs, you have to adjust on the fly and do whatever it takes,” Thomas said.
Late in the game, the Saints were clinging to a lead after Panthers safety Mike Adams intercepted a pass from Brees, and again, it was another former Buckeyes standout who made an impactful play.
Bell provided coverage of a third-down incompletion from Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to wide receiver Devin Funchess. Then, on fourth-and-23 from the New Orleans 34-yard line, Bell rushed in and sacked Newton for a 17-yard loss and turnover on downs, which allowed the Saints' offense to run out the clock.
“They dialed it up, and I went out and made a play, Bell said. “I stood up to the plate to help this team. This was a big game, and now, we have to get ready for next week.”
With the win over the Panthers, the Saints advanced to the NFC Divisional Playoffs, where they will take on the second-seeded Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis next Sunday night.