After 63 days and seven Sundays without a win, the Carolina Panthers finally came in from the cold.
And with each successive score in a 41-10 beatdown of the New Orleans Saints that no one saw coming, the Panthers sent thousands of fans spilling out of the Superdome.
“It’s what we expect,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said afterward, smiling.
Afer Carolina’s struggles, they might have been the only ones.
With quarterback Cam Newton breaking out of the worst slump of his career and the Panthers defense throttling the league’s second-ranked offense, the Panthers (4-8-1) ended their seven-game winless streak with a bang.
Carolina won for the first time since an Oct. 5 victory against Chicago.
So much for the Panthers mailing it in after Rivera and the front office decided to start getting more young players on the field.
It was the fourth loss in a row at home for the Saints (5-8), who were tied with Atlanta (5-7) in the woeful NFC South entering the game. The Falcons play at Green Bay on Monday night.
So, are the Panthers back in the chase for the NFC South title and a home playoff game?
“I don’t think we were ever out of it,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said.
The Panthers got healthy on the right arm and legs of Newton, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns. Newton also ran 12 times for 83 yards and a score – a 2-yard stretch into the end zone that put the Panthers up 17-0.
Newton had thrown an interception in eight consecutive games, a team record. But he had no turnovers against the Saints and wasn’t sacked while playing behind a much-maligned offensive line.
Tempers flared after Newton’s rushing touchdown when he and defensive end Cameron Jordan got in each other’s faces, igniting a fight that ended with Panthers reserve tight end Brandon Williams getting ejected for punching a Saints’ player.
The fight did little to slow the Panthers’ momentum.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s unit finished with 497 total yards, the third-highest in team history. Carolina’s 271 rushing yards also were the third-most in the franchise’s 20-year history.
With running back DeAngelo Williams out with a broken hand, Jonathan Stewart took advantage of the extra carries by running 20 times for 155 yards, the second-highest total of his career.
Shula, who has faced criticism as the Carolina offense struggled, put together a game plan that produced a dominating performance.
“Mike has called good games,” Rivera said. “It was good to see us complete one.”
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ defense held New Orleans to a season-low 310 yards, more than 100 yards fewer than their season average of 430.3. Many of the yards came in the fourth quarter with the Panthers leading big.
Any concerns the Panthers would come out flat after the decision to cast off two more veterans last week in favor of young players were erased by a brilliant start by Newton and two quick takeaways by the Carolina defense.
Newton had been mired in the worst, six-game stretch of his career. But he sliced up the Saints after Rivera opted to take the ball, rather than defer to the second half, after the Panthers won the coin toss.
Newton accounted for all 80 yards on the opening march, which he finished with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin. Newton was 5-for-5 passing for 56 yards and rushed for 24 yards on two carries.
Newton’s longest rush in his first 11 games was a 15-yarder last week at Minnesota. He had two runs longer than in the first half, including a 21-yard keep that was the longest play of the opening drive.
The Panthers’ defense forced two turnovers on the Saints’ first two series, just as they did in New Orleans’ 28-10 win in Charlotte on Oct. 30. The Panthers scored no points off the Saints’ early turnovers in the first meeting.
But Sunday they cashed in 10 points off the takeaways – a Mark Ingram fumble on a nice strip by cornerback Josh Norman and an interception by rookie Bené Benwikere, who made a great play on a long throw to Joseph Morgan after rookie safety Tre Boston was beaten deep.
The Saints finally got on the board with a Shayne Graham field goal. But Newton answered with a 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen to make it 24-3 and the rout was on.