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Panthers travel the rough road to 12-0

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart celebrates his first-half touchdown Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart celebrates his first-half touchdown Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

This 11-0 stuff looked so simple. Going into Sunday’s game, the Carolina Panthers had beaten Tennessee by 17 and then Washington by 28 and then, on Thanksgiving, Dallas by 19.

Line up, overwhelm the opponent with superior defense or offense or both and remain undefeated. Step right up. Who’s next?

The New Orleans Saints were. What happened Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is a testament to how challenging, odds-defying and terribly difficult it is for any NFL team to open a season with 12 straight victories.

The Panthers’ mantra has been to approach every game as if it is the most important game they’ll ever play.

That’s not how they came out Sunday. Cam Newton threw a pass to Ted Ginn Jr. that had no chance to be completed, and the Saints picked it off. Jonathan Stewart fumbled, the Saints recovered and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. The defense appeared perpetually surprised and was beaten short and deep.

And this was in the first quarter. When the quarter ended, New Orleans led 14-0.

The Panthers also trailed 16-13 at the half and 38-34 with 5:21 remaining in the game.

This, finally, was the game they could lose. The Saints were bigger underdogs at home Sunday than they’ve been since Drew Brees became their quarterback. Yet they were playing inspired football against an NFC South rival, and for the first time in a long time they gave their fans a reason to cheer.

“I just think you see examples of this (upsets and near upsets) all over the league,” Carolina center Ryan Kalil said. “And I think that’s why this game is so popular and so special and so unpredictable.”

The Panthers have often been the team that, like the Saints Sunday, had no chance to make the playoffs.

“We know what it’s like to be on the other side and scratch and claw,” Kalil said. “You’re fighting for your job, for next year, for continuity. It’s not like college football. Teams don’t just lay down. Somebody once told me there’s no bad NFL teams, only better ones, and I’m a firm believer in that.”

The Saints led 38-34 with 2:09 remaining. These fans were as loud as they had been all afternoon, the noise reverberating throughout the dome. The Panthers had the ball on the Saints’ 46; it was fourth down and 4. If they fail to make the play, they likely fail to win.

To put them in position to win the game and sustain their winning streak, Newton had to make a play with his legs that few quarterbacks can, and Greg Olsen had to make a play with his hands that few receivers can.

Newton rolled left away from the Saints’ rush. In the Dome it looked like an ambush – as if 15 to 25 Saints were chasing the quarterback. Newton rolled and ran and just before he went down, he flicked a pass to Greg Olsen, who grabbed the ball on the Saints’ 30 just before it hit the turf.

New Orleans challenged the catch. But when the play was shown on the big board, it was evident officials had no reason to overturn the call.

The Panthers moved 30 yards in three plays, the last of them a 15-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.

Even though Carolina made more mistakes than it had in the last month, it won 41-38.

For the third straight season, the Panthers are the NFC South champs.

And for the first time in almost a month, this one did not look easy.

“Oh, heck no, it’s not easy at all,” Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said. “The Saints are in our division, and they know us like the back of their hand. We got to go back to the lab and get stuff fixed up and tightened up.”

As well as Norman plays, and he is a sensational player, he does some of his best work talking in the locker room after the game.

About the mistakes, Norman says: “It just rains down upon us and we still manage to get over the hump. I can’t say enough about that, man. It’s like the trash piles up, and you don’t feel like taking it out, and one day it stinks so bad you got to take it out, and that’s what we did.

“It wasn’t pretty at all, and I take my hats off to those guys on the Saints. But you know, we’re 12-0 in the NFL. That doesn’t happen. You can’t wake up and get out of bed and say, ‘I think we’re going to go 12-0.’

“We have earned the right to be where we are. Just got to keep this train going, man.”

The next stop is Bank of America Stadium, where on Sunday the Panthers will play another NFC South rival, the Atlanta Falcons.

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