NEW ORLEANS Throughout Ron Rivera's first season, the Panthers applied bandages to an ailing defense that lost starters the way kids lose Lego pieces.
Sunday, at a loud and packed Superdome, one of the best offenses in NFL history ripped off those bandages and administered one of the worst defensive beatings in Carolina's 17-year history.
New Orleans rang up a franchise-record 617 yards and rattled off 28 unanswered points to roll into the playoffs following a 45-17 victory against Carolina.
Forced to use a patchwork defense again, the Panthers (6-10) surrendered the most yards and first downs (33) in their history. For the season, Carolina allowed franchise highs in points (429), touchdowns (50), yards (6,042) and passing yards (3,949).
The Panthers played without Charles Johnson, their $76 million defensive end, and five other injured defensive starters.
Against Tampa Bay, that wasn't a problem.
Against Drew Brees, it was a mismatch.
"Today's not indicative of the way we played the last five weeks, by no means," Rivera said. "We caught a football team that's on a roll right now. It's tough. When you put on the tape and watch how they played against Atlanta (a 45-16 win on Dec. 26) and how they played against us, the first thing you say is, 'I hope we don't have to play them.'
"That's what's going to happen. Whoever is playing them is playing a very good football team on a hot roll right now."
The Saints (13-3) will face Detroit next weekend at the Superdome in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
The Panthers missed the postseason for the third year in a row. Despite Sunday's result, Panthers receiver Steve Smith predicted the drought will end in 2012.
"I guarantee this is a playoff team next year," said Smith, who praised the attitude brought by Rivera and his staff.
"They want to win. They want to win yesterday," Smith added. "Some guys that weren't designated as heroes stepped up with the injuries, and we found some diamonds in the rough. (Antwan) Applewhite is a great guy. He was out on the street and came out here and made some big-time plays. I'm going on record, I guarantee we make the playoffs next year."
Rivera said the Panthers have defensive needs to address, beginning at linebacker, where Jon Beason and Thomas Davis went down the first two weeks to start a season-long run of injuries.
Dan Connor and Jordan Senn filled in as best they could, but they were part of a defense Sunday that had no answers for the Saints' offensive juggernaut. New Orleans scored on eight of its first nine possessions before Brees gave way to backup Chase Daniel with nine minutes remaining.
Brees, who broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record against the Falcons, added 389 yards to his total to distance himself from Tom Brady. Brees finished the regular season with 5,476 yards and the Saints surpassed the 2000 St. Louis Rams as the league's most prolific offense with 7,474 yards.
Brees completed 28 of 35 passes for 389 yards and five touchdowns, with one interception. It was his seventh consecutive 300-yard game and 13th of the season - both NFL records.
The Panthers never sacked him.
"A couple times we got back there and were a step away or we get a hand up, and he lets the ball go. That's a playoff team for you," said Applewhite, who started in place of Johnson. "They look like a team that's ready to enter the playoffs. They were a team that was ready to play and we weren't."
Rivera downplayed the effect of the injuries. He said he was most disappointed in his team's ability to stop the run.
Chris Ivory rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown, and the Saints finished with 208 rushing yards and a 5.9-yard average.
"We think it's an important element to what we do. It's an area we wanted to improve on," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It allows you to do some things in regards to control games, manage the clock and a lot of other things that are important to winning football games."
The Panthers offense played well early. Jonathan Stewart's 29-yard touchdown run tied the score at 17 with 1:18 left in the first half.
But Brees quickly led the Saints down the field, hitting Marques Colston for a 42-yard touchdown on broken coverage by safety Sherrod Martin to regain the lead with seven seconds remaining before halftime.
The rout was on.
Cam Newton threw for 158 yards to become the first player in NFL history to finish a season with at least 4,000 passing and 500 rushing yards. But the rookie was ineffective in the second half, completing 6 of 11 for 52 yards and taking a shot on his non-throwing elbow on a sack by Martez Wilson.
The Panthers managed just 66 yards in the second half.
"Normally we have that third-quarter slump. We had a whole second-half slump," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "It's just bad to end a season on a note like this."