The Carolina Panthers limped into New Orleans last season with their playoff hopes on life support, having gone two months without a victory.
They left with a resounding 41-10 victory that helped propel them to a late-season surge and their second consecutive NFC South title.
A year later, Carolina (11-0) is still rolling.
The Panthers’ streak of 15 consecutive regular-season wins is tied for the longest by an NFC team in NFL history. When Carolina faces the Saints (4-7) on Sunday in the Superdome, the Panthers will have gone 371 days without a regular-season loss.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera wasn’t ready to point to last year’s victory over the Saints as the game that sent the Panthers on their way. But some of the Panthers’ players believe the lopsided win in New Orleans – and the manner in which Carolina dominated – created momentum that carried into the playoffs and the ensuing offseason.
“It was a statement game,” cornerback Bené Benwikere said. “It was a big game and everybody rallied around each other. We knew what it meant to get that win.”
The Panthers were 3-8-1 when they traveled to New Orleans, having stretched their winless streak to seven games with a demoralizing 31-13 loss at Minnesota on Nov. 30.
Despite having gone more than 60 days without a win, the Panthers remained in contention in the NFC South. The front office and the coaching staff made a couple of moves after the loss to the Vikings in an effort to improve the team in the short term, while also keeping an eye on the future.
Carolina cut veteran cornerback Antoine Cason and special teams regular Jason Williams, both of whom had given up big plays at Minnesota.
The Panthers went with a youth movement in the secondary, where then-rookies Tre Boston and Benwikere took over for safety Thomas DeCoud and Cason, respectively.
The switch paid off almost immediately against the Saints. After the Panthers scored a touchdown on their first drive, cornerbacks Josh Norman and Benwikere came up with takeaways on consecutive plays in New Orleans’ territory.
The turnovers – Norman forced a fumble against running back Mark Ingram and Benwikere intercepted Drew Brees – led to 10 points and a 17-0 first-quarter lead. The Panthers never looked back.
“It was do-or-die time for us if we were going to make it to the playoffs. We were on high alert and we needed to get things done,” Benwikere said this week. “I remember me and Josh before the game, we talked to each other about we need to make plays and step up. It was finally our chance because the week before that they finally put us in the rotation.”
The Saints had knocked off Carolina 28-10 five weeks earlier in Charlotte. But Brees says it was a different Panthers team that showed up in the Superdome.
“They had made some changes that week. That was kind of the start of their run,” Brees said. “I believe they had gotten beaten by Minnesota the week before and hadn’t looked very good and changed some defensive personnel and just started doing some new things and started playing really, really well.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had thrown an interception in a team-record eight consecutive games before the New Orleans game. But he had no turnovers and wasn’t sacked against the Saints as Carolina racked up 497 total yards, the third-highest total in Panthers history.
With Jonathan Stewart accounting for a season-high 122 yards, the Panthers ran for 271 yards, also third most in franchise history.
The victory was tonic for what had ailed the Panthers and started a four-game win streak that resulted in a playoff berth. The back-to-back division titles were the first for an NFC South team; the consecutive playoff appearances were a first for the Panthers.
“I don’t know what we lost, how many straight we lost. But it was rough. We needed a win in the worst way,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “It did kind of get us going and a spark. And that chance we had of making the playoffs kept getting a little bit greater each week. That New Orleans game definitely started it off for us.”
Rivera said “things really started to click” for the Panthers after the Week 13 victory.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen agreed, even if he couldn’t offer an easy explanation.
“We went down there in tough straits. We were struggling. We just got embarrassed by Minnesota the week before. Things weren’t looking good,” Olsen said. “We were 3-8-1. That kick-started us. Why? I don’t know. It just did.”