Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers unexpectedly approach perfection in rout of Saints

I saw it, and I still am not quite sure I believe it.

Carolina 41, New Orleans 10.

Questions abound. Where has that been all season? How in the world did it happen? Is Carolina actually back in the playoff chase?

Or, as Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said, mocking the Saints’ fans favorite cheer as he ran off the field: “Who Dat? We Dat!”

The Panthers were just that good Sunday. In 20 years of covering Carolina, I can’t remember a more inexplicable, astounding rout. The Panthers (4-8-1) hadn’t won a game since Oct. 5 and were facing a team that blew them out in Charlotte the day before Halloween.

But one of the best parts about sports is that they offer some of life’s truest surprises. Sometimes, just when you are sure one thing will happen, a different thing does.

The Saints had beaten Carolina by 18 points in Charlotte on Oct. 30, one of a half-dozen losses by 18 or more the Panthers have endured in an often horrible season. And then the Panthers played like Super Bowl champs Sunday, with quarterback Cam Newton throwing for three touchdowns and running for another and the defense throttling New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees completely.

The much-maligned Panthers offensive line suddenly looked like it was bulging with Pro Bowlers. Newton was never sacked and didn’t throw an interception for the first time in nine games.

“It was a thing of beauty,” said Panthers safety Roman Harper, who played eight years in New Orleans. Harper also mentioned he had never heard the Saints booed at halftime leaving the field like they were Sunday, already down 24-3.

Let Brees describe the start.

“Within the first six minutes of the game, they’re up 17-0,” Brees said. “We’d run three plays. Obviously, that can’t happen.”

Said New Orleans coach Sean Payton: “You pick an area, you pick a phase and it was awful.”

Depends on your point of view. For Panthers fans, this was the vindication for believing every week, for watching the 2014 team lose six times by 18 or more points, for thinking that someday it just had to get better.

Will it last? Defensive tackle Kawann Short thinks so.

“I think we can win out,” Short said, speaking of Carolina’s final three games vs. Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta. That would give Carolina a 7-8-1 record and might or might not be enough to make the playoffs, depending on what the Saints and the Falcons do.

No one knows if the Panthers can do that, for it’s hard to bottle magic. For one Sunday, though, the Panthers looked just as good as they ever did during the 12-win season of 2013. Jonathan Stewart ran for 155 yards, 69 of them on a touchdown run that made it 31-3 and basically sealed the game a minute into the third quarter.

By the fourth quarter, fans were leaving in droves. New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham was getting a derisive cheer when he actually caught a pass – he already had dropped at least three.

Newton was the best player on the field Sunday and involved in everything. His extended “Superman” celebration after his first-quarter touchdown dive drew the ire of several Saints, starting an end-zone scrum that pushed its way through a closed end-zone gate and got Carolina’s third-string tight end, Brandon Williams, thrown out of the game when he started swinging away.

Newton said he didn’t hear the many cheers from Saints fans when he went down and stayed down – briefly – after one of his 12 carries. But his teammates sure heard them.

“Disgraceful,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis called the cheering by fans hoping Newton was hurt.

“That’s kind of messed up psychologically,” Norman agreed. “But hey, they were upset. And like Roman (Harper) said, they were probably drunk, too.”

Coach Ron Rivera claimed he “expected” a victory just like this, but he’s optimistic and expects to win every week.

Hardly anyone else expected a Carolina victory by 31 points, that’s for sure, despite the Saints (5-8) having lost three home games in a row entering the game. But there it came. The Panthers unfurled a game closer to perfection than they have played all season and handed the Saints a loss that was tied for the worst they have ever endured in the nine-year Payton-Brees era in New Orleans.

So now Carolina has risen, zombie-like, back into contention in the staggering NFC South. The Panthers threaten to make December relevant after all.

It’s hard to know what to believe about this team anymore. But Panthers fans probably don’t care. After 63 days between wins, they just are glad to remember what happiness feels like.

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