Carolina Panthers

Panthers veterans get a sentimental victory over Saints, and now the real fun starts

The Carolina Panthers lost the pregame coin toss, but the moment that hunk of metal hit the Superdome turf will go down as their final “loss” of the season.

In a game that featured mostly backups, the Panthers (7-9) beat the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints 33-14 to avoid becoming the first team in NFL history to start a season 6-2 and lose its final eight games.

Sunday’s victory over the Saints (13-3) was more sentimental than anything for a team that nearly went two full months without one, but good luck finding someone on the roster complaining.

From a football standpoint, the game had all the excitement of a late-August exhibition. The biggest names either sat out or played little with both teams’ fates already sealed — but there was still plenty to watch.

Kyle Allen made his first NFL start at quarterback, outdueling Teddy Bridgewater, who started his first game since 2015.

As the Panthers close the 2018 season, the real fun is about to begin.

Ron Rivera will likely return for his ninth season as the team’s head coach, but his staff could look very different before the end of next month.

Ryan Kalil has announced his retirement and Julius Peppers could follow suit as soon as Monday. The team, meanwhile, is deciding whether to move on from starters such as Thomas Davis, Eric Reid, Devin Funchess (who was healthy but inactive Sunday) and Mike Adams.

Will they opt for a cornerstone offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft? Or will they pounce on one of the 2019 class’ dynamic pass rushers?

Panthers fans, congratulations — you made it through a 17-week roller coaster with a seven-week drop. Now buckle up, because here come the loops.

Three who mattered

Kyle Allen: The undrafted rookie made the most of his opportunity, completing 16-of-27 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns before leaving with an injury. He added another score on the ground in the first quarter.

Curtis Samuel: He caught a 53-yard touchdown pass and could’ve had another if Allen hadn’t underthrown him. He showed he can do as much damage downfield as he can after the catch.

Ian Thomas: The rookie reeled in five catches for 61 yards, pushing his total to 246 yards on 20 catches since taking over for injured Greg Olsen as the team’s lead tight end.

Observations

Funchess, Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara were the three most-notable healthy scratches. In no particular order.

It looked like the Panthers gave Christian McCaffrey one drive to try to hit 2,000 total yards on the season. He fell just short, finishing his sophomore campaign with 219 carries for 1,098 yards and 7 touchdowns, plus a franchise-record 107 catches, 867 yards and 6 more scores.

Allen left the game in the fourth quarter after taking a big hit from Saints DE Marcus Davenport. Garrett Gilbert played in his stead.

DJ Moore finished with 72 yards on two catches, after two games in which he had a combined 31 receiving yards. He ends his rookie season as the Panthers’ leading wide receiver.

McCaffrey warmed up on the sideline when Allen left the game, suggesting he was the Panthers’ emergency quarterback.

Worth mentioning

The Panthers scored on their first two drives of the game first the first time this season. It’s just the fourth time they’ve scored multiple touchdowns in the first quarter (Week 14, Week 8 and Week 3).

After failing to force a turnover in three straight games from Week 10 to Week 12, Carolina has forced eight turnovers in its past five games, including a Colin Jones interception Sunday.

Peppers finished the season — and possibly his career — half of a sack shy of third-place on the NFL’s all-time record board.

They said it

“It’s not about draft picks, it’s about winning and losing. That’s what it’s about. We didn’t come here to lose and throw in the towel, we came here to compete. … That’s the way we’ll always approach it as long as I’m here. I just believe that that’s the right way to do things. We’re professionals and we came here to do our job.” — Ron Rivera on fans in favor of losing to improve their draft position.

“I wasn’t going to put him in if we didn’t have to. We’d probably just punt the ball.” — Rivera on McCaffrey warming up as the emergency quarterback.

“Have you seen how much I make? I’ve already taken a pay cut.” — Thomas Davis on whether desire to return to Panthers would lead him to taking a pay cut or diminished role.

Marcel Louis-Jacques, 704-358-5015: @Marcel_LJ
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