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Alvin Kamara has new-look Saints on top of NFC South

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NEW ORLEANS -- Before the cameras turned on for the Saints running backs' joint meeting with the press, rookie Alvin Kamara leaned over to take some lint out of teammate Mark Ingram's beard. Ingram returned the favor by helping to straighten Kamara's hat.

Complementary both on and off the field, the RB tandem's latest collaboration during Sunday's 31-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers was more proof that this Saints season will be one to remember.

"Over the past few years, they've been getting the best of us -- especially in big games," Ingram said of the Panthers, facial hair spotless. "We put an emphasis on that we were gonna be the bullies and we were going to hit them in the mouth."

New Orleans is the team Carolina used to be. Now 9-3 with two convincing wins over the Panthers, Saints coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees are on their way to a sixth playoff appearance and first since 2013. After three straight 7-9 seasons where the formula grew increasingly stale and Payton's future grew increasingly discussed, the Saints are championship contenders again with an entirely new identity.

Kamara and Ingram combined for 248 yards from scrimmage against the Panthers, almost more than Carolina's entire offense. Calling New Orleans a smashmouth outfit, however, undersells the versatility that both running backs possess. On Sunday, it was the bruising Ingram who popped the longest play from scrimmage, bursting up the gut of the Panthers defense before getting tracked down 72 yards later.

"I was trying to get my best Alvin Kamara on. Trying to go in matrix mode," Ingram said.

Kamara, meanwhile, did his best Ingram impression on a tone-setting touchdown to cap the Saints' first drive. Saints coach Sean Payton called a fourth-down pitch to Kamara on the goal line, a play that looked dead when Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson launched himself into Kamara, making direct hip-to-hip contact. Kamara somehow absorbed the hit after going backward, kept his balance and forced his way into the end zone. It was the type of play that makes an opposing coach just shake his head.

"We can prepare for whatever we want, but he's got some elite ability," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Kamara after the game.

With his understated approach and slippery style, Kamara defies easy description. No one would classify the third-round pick as a power back, yet he runs through as many tackles as any back in the league. Ingram simply calls him "savage." Defensive end Cameron Jordan likens Kamara to Bruce Lee because he flows like water.

"Fluid, but strong. If [Kamara] gets his flow going, he's really strong with the current," Jordan said, a comment that looks strange written down yet makes sense to anyone who has watched Kamara play.

There is a method to the flow. Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said during the week that Kamara is able to shake so many tacklers because his body "goes limp to the side" and the defender shrugs off it. I asked Kamara if this was intentional.

"You gotta play with your body position. That's what I do," Kamara said. "Try to transfer my weight. Play with guys. Make it hard for them to tackle."

Listening to this, Ingram jumped in and was almost incredulous.

"Listen, as a running back, you don't know what's going on! He can't explain to you what's happening. You just do it! You just stay on your feet and keep going," Ingram said.

This victory ensures that the Saints keep going to even bigger games. Jordan, a seventh-year veteran who deserves consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, noted that the team hasn't been in a meaningful December game since 2014, when the Panthers beat the Saints on the way to one of Carolina's three consecutive division titles.

"Fast forward four years. Tables have turned a little bit. We have a hungry defense. We have an offense powered by our running backs. This is unlike any team we've ever had," Jordan said.

Drew Brees' passing game now plays a supporting role, with New Orleans not even needing to throw the ball once during one touchdown drive. The team's pass defense, so long an organizational sinkhole, is excelling despite fielding so many young players. Safety Kenny Vaccaro is a fifth-year veteran, yet is the senior contributor to a secondary that made life difficult for the Panthers throughout the game.

The youth is present throughout the roster. The Saints are getting big snaps out of five rookies. Their No. 1 wide receiver, Michael Thomas, is a second-year player. Most of the longtime veterans who are contributing -- like receiver Ted Ginn, linebacker Craig Robertson and center Max Unger -- weren't around the last time the Saints truly mattered.

"I tend to ask other veterans like [punter] Thomas Morstead, 'How was it when things were rolling and y'all won the Super Bowl? How was it?' " Robertson relayed. "It's different than last year. ... Coming in on Victory Mondays and everyone is in there. Watching tape on our own, got the boombox going, guys enjoying being around each other."

No one appears to enjoy being around each other more than Ingram and Kamara, which is easier to do when they are both producing so much. They are the first teammates to each have over 100 scrimmage yards in the same game four times in a season since Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler of the 1985 49ers, boasting 2,397 yards from scrimmage between them with four games still remaining. This was their fifth straight game combining for more than 200 scrimmage yards. Ingram says the goal is to be the best duo ever, one that doesn't seem too outrageous after watching their yin and yang dominate again Sunday.

During one key sequence in the third quarter, Ingram dragged two defenders with him for a key first down, with the help of his center Max Unger. (Saints guard Senio Kelemete said the linemen are coached to chase after plays because of Ingram and Kamara's penchant for breaking tackles.) Later on in the same drive, Kamara shrugged off Coleman on the way to a 20-yard score.

Kamara excels in part because of his versatility -- he touched the ball four times on the game's opening drive having lined up in four different places -- but sometimes his usage is rather predictable.

Facing a third-and-10 with the clock running down in the fourth quarter, the entire Superdome knew Kamara was getting the ball. The Panthers knew Kamara was getting the ball. It didn't matter. He lined up as a wide receiver and took a screen pass 23 yards, setting off a party in the surrounding New Orleans streets that might not end until February.

"He can juke you, run you over or jump over you," Kelemete said. "You never know what you're gonna get."

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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