C.J. Gardner-Johnson, seen above during a Dec. 27 game, was key to the Saints' win Sunday against the Panthers. Dec 27, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (22) talks to a fan during the game against Miami Dolphins during the first half at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a rough year for the New Orleans Saints between injuries and COVID-19 outbreaks, but they pulled off a 18-10 home win against the Carolina Panthers Sunday to get back to .500 (8-8) on the year and remain in the playoff hunt. And that win was wrapped up with safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (seen above during a Dec. 27 game) picking off Panthers’ QB Sam Darnold (on a second and 20, following a 10-yard loss on a sack by Cam Jordan) on Carolina’s final potentially game-tying drive in the last minute:

On the day, the Saints got decent quarterback play from Taysom Hill (who completed 17 of 28 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown while also rushing 12 times for 45 yards), but what really put them over was the strong defensive performance against both the pass and the run. Darnold finished with 17 completions on 32 attempts for just 132 yards, with no touchdowns and this interception. On the ground, Chuba Hubbard collected 55 rushing yards and a touchdown, but needed 17 carries to get there (an average of 3.2 yards per carry), while Ameer Abdullah added 21 yards on six carries (3.5 yards per carry).C

So the New Orleans defense stepped up in a big way here, and that helped the Saints get back to a .500 record. They’re still on the outside of the playoff picture looking in for the moment (the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles are in the current wild-card slots, with both improving to 9-7 after wins Sunday, and the Eagles hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints), but they’re not out of it yet; a win over the Atlanta Falcons next week and a 49ers loss to the Los Angeles Rams would get the Saints in on their conference-record tiebreaker (which would be 7-5 to 6-6 for the 49ers with those outcomes). And Gardner-Johnson’s pick was key to maintaining that hope.

[NFL on Twitter; photo from Stephen Lew/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.