If there wasnt bad blood between the Panthers and Saints already, there is now.
Panthers players said the Saints showed no respect last season when they let quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of their starters play into the fourth quarter in pursuit of records in New Orleans 45-17 win in Week 17. Further fanning the flames was the offseason revelation that the Saints targeted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in their bounty program.
Its not only Panthers players who were at odds with Saints coach Sean Paytons decision to have his starters chase individual records in a lopsided game against an injury-depleted defense.
Its a philosophy. Its an attitude. And thats what his is, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Payton. So he coaches that way and they play that way. My attitude and my philosophy is win the football game, and then be smart about the next week. Thats just the way I look at it, a difference in philosophy.
The Saints had secured the NFCs No. 3 playoff seed in Week 16, but Brees said they wanted to go into the postseason on a roll after taking a passive approach in the regular-season finale the year before against Tampa Bay.
New Orleans rolled up a franchise-high 617 yards the most ever allowed by the Panthers to run their season total to 7,474 yards, breaking the NFL mark held by the 2000 Rams. The Saints also had several individual records in reach.
Brees had broken Dan Marinos single-season passing yardage record the week before, but needed to hold off New Englands Tom Brady who also surpassed Marinos total to keep the mark. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and New Englands Rob Gronkowski were jockeying for the most receiving yards by a tight end, while the Saints Darren Sproles was closing in on the leagues net yardage record in a season.
When it got into the third and fourth quarter, Sproles was close to the record of most all-purpose yards in history. Jimmy Graham was close to most yards for a tight end in history, Brees said Wednesday in a conference call with Charlotte media. So were we trying to get those guys some touches, some yards, in order to break those records? Yeah, absolutely. Who wouldnt?
While the Panthers played without six defensive starters, Brees stayed in through the first series of the fourth quarter before turning the 28-point lead over to backup Chase Daniel. On Daniels first series, the Saints lined up to go for a fourth-and-1 at their 41, but punted after a false start penalty made it fourth-and-6.
When youre going for it on fourth-and-1 when youre up by 50,000 points, its what youre supposed to do. But its not what youre supposed to do, at the same time, defensive end Greg Hardy said. So Im not happy about that.
Charles Johnson, the other starting defensive end, was in Charlotte with a back injury and could only watch the Saints record-setting day.
I knew they were going for the records when Drew Brees was still in the game and it was like 42 to whatever, Johnson said. But hey, its all good. If we were in that position, wed do that to them, too.
Like Johnson, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was injured and didnt make the trip to New Orleans.
They broke a lot of records. I think they broke like 10 records against us. Im fired up about that, Munnerlyn said. Its in my mind still and I know some guys on defense, we dont like that.
Brees said the Saints handled the situation with the utmost respect, pointing out Daniel took a knee three straight snaps inside the Carolina 20 in the final two minutes.
We wanted to play well. If we were concerned about as many yards as possible then I wouldnt have come out of the game with 10 minutes left and we wouldnt have taken a knee three times at the end of the game and gave the ball back to Carolina, Brees said.
I remember we took a knee on fourth down even. I felt like we handled that with the utmost respect. We certainly were going to try to play our best going into the playoffs, though.
The first game in Charlotte last season had its own drama. Saints safety Roman Harper blindsided Steve Smith in the end zone after Smiths 54-yard touchdown catch, setting off a fight involving players from both teams.
When news of the Saints bounty program broke in April, Smith told NFL.com he wasnt surprised because a Saints player once told him during a game that dirty plays were encouraged by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
But Smith took the high road when asked about the bounty Wednesday, saying it only affected the four players whose suspensions were overturned.
Unless youre those four guys, I dont think it really concerns you, Smith said. Im not meeting with (Commissioner) Roger (Goodell) this week. So I dont have to worry about it.
Other players said they were disappointed to learn Newton was among those targeted. Newton declined to comment on the issue.
Hopefully, they changed their ways, wideout Brandon LaFell said. If they want to still play like that, let them play. But were going to come out and play smart and physical.