The Carolina Panthers celebrated their first win in two months by attending team and positional meetings for much of the day at Bank of America Stadium.
For a team that had gone nine weeks between wins, there was no “Victory Monday,” the name for the day off NFL players often get after successful Sundays.
It was business as usual for the Panthers, although everyone was in a decidedly better mood following the 41-10 dismantling of New Orleans in the Superdome.
“To me I don’t think we earned Victory Monday yet,” defensive end Mario Addison said. “If we were playing well with a little more heart early, we’d have Victory Monday. But we had a great win Sunday.”
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The Panthers’ most complete win of the season thrust them back into the thick of things in the NFC South. With three games remaining, the Panthers (4-8-1) are a half-game behind New Orleans (5-8). They also trail Atlanta (5-8), which lost to Green Bay Monday night.
Addison believes the Panthers have to win each of their remaining games, against Tampa Bay (2-11), Cleveland (7-6) and the Falcons, to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Carolina has never made consecutive postseason appearances, and the NFC South has never had a repeat champion.
Addison said the Panthers are fortunate to get another chance.
“We’re going to capitalize on this one. We’re not going to go out there and (mess it up),” Addison said. “It’s time to really man up and do what we can do. In the history of the division, no one ever won it back-to-back.”
The Panthers are alive for the division crown after handing the Saints their worst home loss since 2003.
Shaking out of a six-game slump, quarterback Cam Newton threw for 226 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 83 yards and a score.
It was Newton’s fourth game with at least 200 passing yards and multiple passing touchdowns and 80 or more rushing yards and a rushing touchdown. That’s the most in NFL history.
Newton, who had offseason ankle surgery, had not had a run longer than 15 yards in his first 11 games. He had two rushes of at least 20 yards in the first quarter against New Orleans.
“He did a nice job on some of his runs. He looked fast, probably looked faster than he’d been,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “I told him that. I don’t know if he was or not. He just looked faster.”
Newton had plenty of help.
The offensive line, using the same combination of starters in back-to-back games for the first time since October, had what Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil called its best game.
The line did not allow Newton to be sacked, and opened up lanes for running back Jonathan Stewart, whose 155 rushing yards were the second-most of his career.
The Panthers are starting two rookie guards in Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, along with second-year right tackle Mike Remmers. Two other rookies – cornerback Bené Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston – started in the secondary against the Saints.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the team’s youth is part of the reason he didn’t want to cut players loose with a free day Monday.
“As we’ve gone through this year, the way things have gone, it’s a different team than the one we had last year,” Rivera said. “It’s a younger group. This is a group that’s a little more inexperienced. They’re new to each other. We’ve mixed and matched for so long that we’ve got to find a certain something.”
The Panthers seemed to find something against the Saints, finishing with 271 rushing yards and 497 total yards, both the third-highest totals in team history.
“The most exciting part is we didn’t really change anything,” Kalil said. “We just kind of figured out a way to be better at what we’ve been doing and be more consistent at it. I think that was the difference.”
The defense was equally impressive, clamping down on Saints quarterback Drew Brees and holding the league’s second-ranked offense to 310 net yards, more than 100 yards below its average.
When he met with his team Monday, Rivera pointed to the Saints as an example of the up-and-down nature of the NFL. A week after beating Pittsburgh on the road, the Saints were blown out at home after beginning the week as a 10-point favorite over the Panthers.
“We’re not going to look at who we play. We’re going to play. That’s the bottom line,” Rivera said. “And if (the win over New Orleans) doesn’t prove to you that any team in the NFL can beat any team on any given Sunday, then you’re not paying attention.”
Kalil says the attention this week needs to be on the Buccaneers, who were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday following a 34-17 loss to Detroit.
“We’ve made our own bed this season with how we played in the middle of the season,” Kalil said. “I think right now the focus is to finish strong, and we’ve got to play Tampa and we’ve got to beat them. I don’t think it really matters unless we handle our own business.”