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Sunday, December 22, 2013
Halftime Report: Panthers 7, Saints 6

By Mike Triplett

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New Orleans Saints dominated most of the action for 28 minutes. But then the Carolina Panthers hit them with a 1-2 punch to take a 7-6 lead at halftime. Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Disastrous turn: The Saints were doing a great job of avoiding their game-breaking mistakes on the road for the first 28 minutes. The defense was outstanding and the offense was patient. Then quarterback Drew Brees threw an interception to Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. And Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams busted loose for a 43-yard touchdown run on the very next play. Those are the two things the Saints said have been killing them most in their road losses this season. Brees’ interception was bad -- but not egregious. It was a third-down play, and Davis made a leaping grab for a sensational snag. The defensive breakdown on the next play was worse. Williams found a gaping hole up the middle after the Saints crashed down too hard.

Protection problems: Brees has been sacked five times already in this game -- including three against rookie left tackle Terron Armstead in his first career start. Armstead was clearly beat by defensive end Greg Hardy on two of the sacks. But Brees held onto the ball too long for at least two of them. And even when he has had time to throw today, he hasn’t been finding receivers open deep. The Panthers’ coverage has been excellent. Almost all of Brees’ successful throws have been underneath.

The good stuff: The Saints have done a lot of good things in the first half, especially on defense. They started with an interception by safety Malcolm Jenkins on a tipped ball inside the red zone on the first drive. Then came three straight three-and-outs and a four-and-out. … The Saints’ special teams have also been excellent, with a successful surprise onside kick converted from Thomas Morstead to Ramon Humber, new kicker Shayne Graham making both field goal attempts, and Morstead booming punts. … And Saints running back Mark Ingram busted loose for a beautiful 34-yard gain (the Saints haven’t run the ball much today).

Big injuries: The Saints and Panthers each lost a key player in the first half. Panthers receiver Steve Smith was ruled out with a knee injury. And Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro was carted off with a lower leg injury. Vaccaro was officially listed as doubtful to return, but FOX reported that he might have a broken ankle. That is a significant loss for the Saints -- considering they have counted on Vaccaro in such a versatile role this season. Although, one of the best things Vaccaro did in the first meeting against Carolina was his coverage against Smith, so let’s call it a wash.

Here comes the rain: The rain held off in the first half, but it could be a wet second half in Carolina.