Drew Brees showed Cam Newton how to mount a comeback win in the NFL in Charlotte.
The Saints opened divisional play with a hard-hitting nail-biter against Carolina, a game that featured six personal fouls and two key gaffes by the Panther' coaching staff with ill-fated timeouts at the end of each half. The Panthers, despite dropping to 1-4, gave the 4-1 Saints everything they could handle and grabbed a fourth quarter lead before Brees delivered the final knockout punch.
With 7:06 left in the game and down by four, Brees took over at his own 11 yard line and guided the Saints on a brilliant 13-play, 6:16 drive that re-claimed the Panthers' short-lived lead and sealed the win. Brees now has touchdowns in 32 straight games, good for the third longest streak in the NFL.
Cam Newton was 16/31 for 224 yards, two touchdown passes and a touchdown run, and at times had the Saints defense on their heels. He and his two runningbacks combined for 162 rushing yards. But Newton's early errant throw set his team behind early.
On the first offensive play from scrimmage, a simple out route to the left side intended for Steve Smith was off by a good five yards, and essentially thrown straight to Patrick Robinson. The second year corner, starting ahead of Tracy Porter, collected his second career interception and his second straight in as many games and raced down inside the five yard line. A facemask penalty on RB DeAngelo Williams on the tackle moved the ball inside the three yard line.
The Saints ran it to within inches with Pierre Thomas, then a quick give to Jed Collins was denied just an inch short. On third down, off the quick-snap Brees fired to Collins in the front of the end zone. The unheralded fullback now has two touchdowns in as many games as Sean Payton tries to put plays on film to open up other red zone plays.
Brees was up 7-0 with 13:50 left in the first quarter.
Cam Newton got the ball back and tried to get some inertia in the run game. The Panthers mixed it up, going shotgun directly to DeAngelo Williams or with designed runs by Newton, picking up a pair of first downs. A pass to former Saint TE Jeremy Shockey picked up four despite tight coverage by Jo-Lonn Dunbar, then on a third down Newton fired too long for Steve Smith down the left sideline, leading to a punt.
Starting from their own 8 after the punt, Brees' passes to Sproles and Ingram picked up 9 before he fired downfield for Marques Colston over the middle. A big hit was delivered but Colston, playing a confidence game with his surgically repaired, metal reinforced collarbone, held on to the ball for a gain of 22. Later on 3rd and 9, a inside draw to slippery Sproles found him breaking open for a 24 yard gain but apparently fumbling, recovered downfield by the Panthers.
Payton quickly called for a review of the fumble, which was shortly reversed. At the Carolina 28, Brees fired down the seam for Lance Moore, who was tackled before the pass arrived by S Captain Munnerlyn for an easy pass interference call to the Panther 11. Two plays later, CB Charles Godfrey broke up an outside shoulder fade to Jimmy Graham in the end zone. Former Panther K John Kasay instead hit a 23-yard field goal for the 10-0 lead at the 6:18 mark in the first quarter.
On Newton's next series, Newton fired downfield for Legedu Naanee for 22 yards on 3rd and 6, then Naanee brought back a big run by Steve Smith with a holding call. On 3rd and 9, Newton stepped up under duress, and with Jonathan Vilma flying in the air towards him, fired downfield for the veteran Smith, who went up high to wrestle the ball away from CB Jabari Greer. Greer fell down, Smith kept on his feet and ran it in from 20 yards out.
SS Roman Harper leveled Steve Smith two or three steps too late in the end zone, sparking a brawl in the end zone. Harper was flagged for the late hit, but the fracas saw most of the Panthers offense in the zone as the Saints defense shoved back. Malcolm Jenkins ended up on the ground with Smith at his facemask.
On Olindo Mare's extra point attempt, CB Patrick Robinson blocked the kick and it was recovered by CB Malcolm Jenkins. The play was dead, and Jenkins pointed the ball at Mare, inciting the crowd further. It was a huge play that would have big implications later in the game, and is the second straight game where 2010 first rounder Patrick Robinson made a big impact.
Taking over at their own 20 after the touchback, Brees needed to silence the ignited crowd. He did just that with an easy third down outside shoulder throw to Jimmy Graham on 3rd and 4 to pick up 18 yards. Brees had a rare miss on a windy day two plays later, overthrowing an open Lance Moore down the right sideline for what would have been a touchdown. On third and one, Sproles was dropped for a loss on the inside handoff near midfield. As the quarter ended, Payton apparently mulled going for it, but opted for the punt.
Taking over at his own 23, Newton went three and out and was sacked by DT Aubrayo Franklin and DE Will Smith on third down. Franklin was credited with a forced fumble which Newton recovered.
The Saints took over at their own 14 after a holding penalty against Malcolm Jenkins on the punt return. With third and short, Jahri Evans jumped early, setting up 3rd and 8. Brees, drifting right from his own seven yard line, fired for Marques Colston, who went up high to make the first down catch to the Panther 29. Brees to Lance Moore picked up 13 yards, and to Meachem picked up 11. Two short runs by Pierre Thomas set up 3rd and 7, and Brees converted with a strike to Jimmy Graham, who broke away and ran down to the Panther 15.
A false start on RT Charles Brown helped create another red zone quagmire for the Saints - with 3rd and 3 from the Panther 6 with 6:52 left in the half. Graham to the rescue again, catching a quick bullet at the first down marker then spinning closer in. Two runs by Mark Ingram finished off the 86 yard, 14-play, 8+ minute drive with a touchdown, putting the Saints up 17-6. Ingram was then flagged for taunting unsportsmanlike conduct, the second such penalty against the Saints that was tacked off on the kickoff.
On that kickoff, Panthers DB Jermale Hines was flagged for a personal foul of his own, moving the Panthers back to their own 19. But four plays later, the Panthers struck back, with Newton optioning to DeAngelo Williams who was wide open in the left sideline. The Saints had blitzed Roman Harper, clearing out that side of the field. Jonathan Vilma dove in vain, and excellent blocking by Legedu Naanee prevented Tracy Porter from making the tackle. Only S Malcolm Jenkins was left in the open against a speeding Williams. Jenkins was fought off at the 20 yard line and Williams cruised into the end zone from 69 yards out.
That was the first offensive Panther touchdown that was not scored or thrown by Cam Newton on the season.
The Saints got the ball back with 3:47 left in the half. Sproles, the NFL's leader in all-purpose yardage, kept the drive alive by hurdling the pile on 3rd and 1. Then Brees was sacked by Munnerlyn at the two minute warning on first down. That would set up 3rd and 11, with Lance Moore catching a comeback at the line of scrimmage to clear the yardage by inches. Two plays later, Brees rolled right and fired to Robert Meachem a the Panther 30. Down to only one time out, Brees clocked the ball with :24 left in the half. On the next snap, DE Greg Hardy sacked Brees when he squeezed between de la Puente and Evans on an overload blitz. The Saints were forced to use their final timeout.
At 3rd and 20 with :18 left and in position for a 53-yard field goal, Brees threw a receiver screen to Sproles lined up wide left. The runningback picked up 12 yards but was tackled inbounds. The Saints rushed their field goal team on the field and appeared to run out of time.
Justin Drescher snapped the ball, the play was blown dead, and CB Chris Gamble decked TE Jimmy Graham. Refs threw a flag, but as the chaos sorted out, the refs announced that inexplicably, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera called a timeout with two seconds left. Who knows why the refs picked up the flag on Gamble, but the Saints then took the field again for the field goal attempt, and Kasay coolly nailed a 53-yarder to put the Saints up 20-13 at the half.
First play of the second half, Brees went deep for Graham who made an incredible circus catch reeling in a twice-deflected pass and catching it one-handed on his back for a 30-yard gain to midfield. Three plays later, Ingram converted a 3rd and 1 by moving the pile down field for an eight yard gain, and followed it with another 8 yard blast up the middle. Sproles picked up another first down by ducking under the tackle of DE Antwan Applewhite and scooting ahead for four yards.
But the drive would stall on 3rd and 8 when a fake screen to the right set up a Pierre Thomas screen to the left. But Thomas stumbled and fell down for no gain despite a clear field ahead of him and blockers on two defenders. Payton chewed out Thomas as Kasay hit a 37-yard field goal to make it 23-13.
Newton got the Panthers moving again with the run game, and a questionable roughing the passer call on third down against Turk McBride gave Newton a first down near midfield. The Panthers picked up another first down by drawing DT Tom Johnson offsides on 2nd and 1, then a dumpoff to Jonathan Stewart picked up 13 yards to the Saint 23.
On 3rd and 1 from the Saint 21 with 4:48 left in the third quarter, Newton fired for former LSU WR Brandon Lafell at the Saint 10, who was somehow left wide open by Scott Shanle and Jabari Greer. Lafell slipped the tackle of Greer and Shanle tackled him at the front pylon. Initially ruled a touchdown, the refs initiated an immediate replay review. The review put the ball at the one. Two plays later, Newton pushed behind Travelle Wharton and forced the ball in himself for the score. Mare's extra point made it 23-20.
Like most good Saints drives, the next got started with a big gain over the middle to Graham, who picked up 20 yards going up high to make the catch over a defender. But two plays later, Brees fired a bit too high for Graham, who tipped the ball into the air and saw it intercepted by S Sherrod Martin at the Saint 41. The Panthers had their best starting field position of the day, and picked up a first down on a pass in the flat to Naanee.
As the third quarter ended, Cam Newton sat back, ran back and forth and finally scrambled past the first down marker to slide at the Saint 18. The physical force of Newton then carried the option down the Saint 6, taking a huge hit from Vilma but getting up to flex for the crowd. The Saints were in danger of losing their lead for the first time today.
On second down in wildcat, DeAngelo Williams carried to the Saint 2, setting up a huge play in the game. Newton fired incomplete into the end zone but the Saints were flagged for another critical roughing the passer penalty. Shaun Rogers was called for helmet-to-helmet contact on Newton though he didn't seem to make much contact at all, and Newton didn't fall down. With a fresh set of downs, Carolina was flagged for false start and moved the ball back to the Saint 6.
On first down, a designed run by Newton was spied by Vilma and stopped at the five, then Newton fired incomplete on second down, setting up another huge third down attempt. Newton fired inside for TE Greg Olsen, who made the catch at the goal line in front of three Saints for the go-ahead score. With 12:40 left in the game, the Panthers had their first lead of the game.
After winning the time of possession battle by a factor of two in the first half, the Panthers won the third quarter. The Saints picked up a single first down on a strike to Colston, but punted after a 3rd and 10 pass to Sproles was short. The Panthers got the ball back to nurse their lead, cracking open 8 and 9 yard runs by Jonathan Stewart. On 3rd and 2 from their own 38 with 8:03 left, Newton fired badly deep downfield for Steve Smith, prompting a punt.
Brees took over at his own 11 with just over seven minutes left. The pass rush had been getting to Brees throughout the game, and on the first down pass to Meachem, Brees was dumped into his end zone. A short second down by Ingram set up a big 3rd and 3 for the Saints as the crowd came alive. Brees could not allow the ball to go back to the Panthers' run game this late.
Brees responded with back-to-back first down strikes to Graham over the middle, when the youngster from Miami made two very tough catches in traffic. Pierre Thomas picked up 18 yards on a patented Pierre Thomas screen pass down the right sideline, with Evans and de la Puete running out in front as escort. Two plays later Brees high-stepped out of a sack and fired down the right sideline to Colston for another first down, setting the Saints up at the Carolina 26.
Brees hit Meachem for six on 2nd and 7 at the two minute warning, so the Saints faced a 3rd and inches from just inside the 20. Rookie RB Mark Ingram converted with a gain of two. Brees found Colston over the middle and to the Panther six, then fired to Pierre Thomas in the flat who scooted into the end zone for his first score of the season and a big one at that.
The extra point made it 30-27 New Orleans, capping a clutch 13-play, 89 yard, 5:06 drive that reclaimed the lead. The Panthers' timeout snafu at the end of the first half now proved to be the separation in the game.
Newton took over with :50 left and fired to Steve Smith for a 19 yard gain on first down. Jonathan Casillas blindsided Newton on the next snap, causing his pass to flutter incomplete. Casillas was a step away from a sack. Naanee caught Newton's ugly-duckling next pass for 16 yards into Saints territory to the 45, and the Panthers called their second timeout to stop the clock with :30 left.
But that timeout was also a poor decision - the replay booth called for a replay of Naanee's catch, and ruled it incomplete. Carolina got their second timeout back, leaving Newton with 3rd and 10 from his own 39 and :33 left on the clock.
Newton rolled right and threw back across his body, a designed throwback perhaps, but one that Tracy Porter nearly intercepted. On 4th and 10 with :27 left, Newton dropped back and fired for TE Greg Olsen, a very high pass that was probably uncatchable. But Roman Harper was flagged for pass interference, the weekly gaffe for Harper against the opposing star tight end.
With :22 left now, Newton had a first down at the Saint 49. Newton fired incomplete, but a holding penalty moved the Panthers back again. Newton fired again for Olsen, but it was broken up smartly by Harper, setting up 3rd and 20. With only :05 left on the clock from the Carolina 49, Newton had no choice but for a Hail Mary. Newton rolled right, heavily pursued, and was hammered as his Hail Mary fluttered well short of the goal line. Greer batted it down and sealed the Saints win.
Inactive for the Saints were WR Adrian Arrington, DE Jeff Charleston, OLB Will Herring, C Olin Kreutz, T Zach Strief, TE David Thomas, LB Martez Wilson. WR Devery Henderson, despite a mid-week calf injury, was active.