After 63 days and seven games 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 that no one saw coming, the Panthers sent thousands of fans spilling out of the Superdome and into the streets of New Orleans.
Who dat going to figure out the NFC South?
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 hadn’t won since an Oct. 5 victory against Chicago. Much had happened in the two months since: Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon reported to federal prison, the San Francisco Giants won another World Series and several Panthers veterans were shown the door.
But one thing hadn’t changed: No one had taken control of the NFL’s worst division.
“Just based on the way things had gone, I never really felt like we were out of it,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We felt as long as we took care of what we needed to do, and that’s win games, then we still had a shot.”
It was the winning part that kept tripping the Panthers.
But after an 80-yard touchdown drive on their opening series and two defensive takeaways on the Saints’ first two drives, it was clear this would be the Panthers’ day.
“That was the day we’ve been waiting for. That’s the day we’ve been talking about and working on – getting off to a positive start, getting things rolling,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “It wasn’t anything magical. It was just efficient, offensive football from the opening span. It was fun.”
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.
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.
Like Panthers coach Ron Rivera, Newton maintained a businesslike tone during his postgame news conference.
“Of course I’m happy right now. But yet we’ve still got our work cut out for us,” Newton said. “There’s a lot of things that have to work our way.”
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 as is his custom, 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 ran for 24 yards on two carries.
The Panthers 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.
Newton’s longest rush in his first 11 games was a 15-yarder last week at Minnesota. He had two runs longer than that in the first half, including a 21-yard keep that was the longest play of the opening drive.
Rivera said Newton’s early success running helped jump-start the offense.
“When he’s in control like that, he’s as good as there is,” Olsen said. “I think its gets him going. He gets into the game, gets the offense rolling. You feed off that. Momentum is a powerful factor in the NFL.”
The defense made sure the Panthers kept the early momentum by forcing turnovers on New Orleans’ first two drives – recovering a Mark Ingram fumble on a strip by cornerback Josh Norman and getting an interception from rookie Bené Benwikere, who made a great play on a Drew Brees throw to Joseph Morgan after rookie safety Tre Boston was beaten deep.
The Panthers had takeaways on the first two series of New Orleans’ 28-10 win in Charlotte on Oct. 30, but didn’t get any points off the Saints’ early turnovers in the first meeting.
But Sunday they converted the takeaways into 10 points and never looked back.
The Panthers held New Orleans to a season-low 310 yards, more than 100 yards fewer than its season average of 430.3. The Saints piled up 195 yards in the fourth quarter with the Panthers leading big.
“Obviously, that’s embarrassing – how we played, how we coached,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “You’re not going to have a chance when you turn it over that frequently in the first quarter, you don’t tackle, you give up almost 300 yards rushing.”
Brees was 29 of 49 for 235 yards and a touchdown, with the one interception. His 69.7 passer rating was his lowest since a Week 2 win against Tampa Bay in 2013.
The Panthers forced Brees into three turnovers in two games.
“Takeaways early were big,” said Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who made a couple tweaks in his scheme but no major changes from the first game against the Saints.
“Our offense did a great job converting those takeaways and we were on a roll from there.”
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 ejected for punching a Saints’ player.
The melee did little to slow the onlsaught.
Olsen, who caught 10 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown after getting his knee drained three times last week, said he has not kept up with the playoff scenarios.
“I know we had four games left and we were going to fight like hell to win all four of them,” Olsen said.
The Panthers got the first one, though it had been a long time coming.