In a game with first place on the line in what has been an ugly NFC South, the Carolina Panthers were the ugliest team on the field Thursday.
In a landslide.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton misfired on passes all night during the worst statistical game of his career and New Orleans shook off a slow start to paste the Panthers 28-10 before a sold-out Bank of America Stadium crowd that cleared out in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers (3-5-1) ran their winless streak to four games and fell out of first place in the anemic NFC South for the first time this season.
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Panthers strong safety Roman Harper, who spent his first eight seasons with the Saints, said he’s had enough of the get-them-next-time attitude.
“I’m tired of just the same talk of ‘Hey, keep your head up. We’ve got next week.’ Eventually we’re going to run out of weeks here,” Harper said. “So we’ve got to do what we need to do ... whatever it takes to start winning these ball games or we’re not going to be where we want to be at the end of the year.”
The Saints (4-4) broke a seven-game road losing streak and got to the .500 mark for the first time this season.
Playing behind an offensive line missing three starters because of to injury, Newton completed 10 of 28 passes for 151 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.
Newton, a two-time Pro Bowler, posted career lows in completions, completion percentage (35.7) and passer rating (39.4). Newton lost two turnovers and was sacked four times.
“I knew I missed a lot of throws, and I’m not blaming anybody but myself,” Newton said.
Newton was asked if he tried to do too much.
“Obviously I didn’t do enough, being that the Panthers lost,” he said.
In losses to Seattle and New Orleans over a five-game stretch, Newton completed 22 of 50 passes for 322 yards and no touchdowns, with two interceptions.
The 22 completions are the worst for Newton over a two-game span during his professional career.
But Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said the Panthers’ problems extend beyond Newton.
“This is a group thing. This is not on one guy,” Olsen said. “We need to do a better job protecting him. We need to do a better job getting open. We need to do a better job catching the ball. Every single aspect of basic football needs to improve.
“There’s no magic formula. We don’t need magic plays. We need to play better.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 24 of 34 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. New Orleans running back Mark Ingram rushed 30 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
The Panthers let Brees off the hook early when they came up with takeaways on New Orleans’ first two drives, but could not turn either into points. Both drives stalled shortly after the Panthers moved into Saints territory.
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards intercepted a Brees pass that cornerback Antoine Cason knocked into the air. Edwards returned the pick 15 yards to the Panthers’ 27.
On the Saints’ next possession, Brees fumbled when defensive end Charles Johnson knocked fullback Erik Lorig into him. Defensive end Mario Addison recovered at the Carolina 47.
The Panthers’ drives after the takeaways fizzled just inside the Saints 40. In each case, Rivera opted to punt rather than have Graham Gano try a long field goal.
“The defense plays their tails off in the first half, gets you two turnovers – one at midfield – you get zero points,” Olsen said.
“That’s not the formula to win.”
The Panthers survived a Newton interception – that went through Brenton Bersin’s hands – when their defense forced a quick punt on the ensuing possession.
But the defense couldn’t hold off the Saints after Newton was sacked and fumbled at the Panthers’ 4-yard line with 3 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half.
Saints linebacker Junior Galette beat rookie guard Andrew Norwell and chopped at Newton’s throwing arm, forcing him to fumble. Linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered, and two plays later Ingram went in for a 3-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
New Orleans went 80 yards running its two-minute offense for its second score. The big play was a pass interference penalty on Cason, who made contact with wideout Robert Meachem in the end zone.
The 32-yard penalty moved the Saints to the Panthers’ 1, where Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham with three seconds remaining in the half to boost New Orleans’ advantage to 14-0.
The Saints doubled up Carolina in the first half in yards (193 to 89) and first downs (14 to 7).
The Panthers got the ball to start the second half and finally started moving.
Running back DeAngelo Williams, in his first action in five weeks, caught a Newton screen pass on the first play of the second half and ran 30 yards to midfield.
After rookie Kelvin Benjamin dropped a pass in the end zone for the second game in a row, Newton scrambled around the left end and dived for the goal line for a 10-yard touchdown run that pulled the Panthers to 14-7.
They would get no closer as the Saints scored four touchdowns in a five-possession stretch spanning both halves.
The Panthers have 11 days before their next game – a Monday night game at Philadelphia on Nov. 10.
Newton said he would use the time to self-scout.
Harper had other plans.
“It’ll be good to get a couple days off, relax, get away from all this for a minute, try not punch any holes in the wall or anything, and bounce back,” he said.