The 7-9 Saints had a chance to end their troubled season on a high note with a three-game winning streak and optimism heading into the offseason.
Instead, the defense allowed 210 rushing yards - on just 21 carries - and two touchdowns to Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams and three more touchdowns to RB Mike Tolbert on a day when QB Drew Brees tossed four touchdowns and the defense scored a touchdown off of a poor performance by Panthers QB Cam Newton.
"This offseason can’t come fast enough… I think the time off will be good for everybody," Saints QB Drew Brees said after the disappointing loss.
The New Orleans defense needed to hold the Panthers to 280 yards or fewer to avoid setting a new NFL record for most yards allowed in a season. The Panthers pushed the Saints into history in the second quarter, and rolled up 533 yards of offense. The Saints defense has given up 7,042 yards on the season, shattering the 1981 Baltimore Colts' record of 6,793 yards. The defense had several memorable short-yardage stands on the season and some big defensive plays, but gave up incredible amounts of yardage - even giving up 386 yards of offense in a shutout of Tampa Bay.
On Sunday, the Saints defense helped give spark to a Saints team that was asleep through the first quarter. In the middle of the second quarter and down 10-0, WR Lance Moore made an incredible, stumbling, falling-backward s catch for a 39-yard gain, the first big gain of the day for the offense. Brees capped that drive with a touchdown pass to Marques Colston from 12 yards out.
Two plays later, Cam Newton's pirouetting, flailing pass to the flat that LB Jonathan Vilma returned 18 yards for a touchdown gave the Saints a 14-10 lead in the second quarter and swung the game in the Saints' favor in less than a minute of game time. The Saints took a 17-13 lead into halftime despite being shut down through most of two quarters, then extended that lead to 24-13 with a 19-yard touchdown strike to TE Jimmy Graham on an 80-yard, eight play opening drive of the second half.
But Panther runningbacks DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert combined for four second half touchdowns on the ground. Tolbert had three on the day, including a one-yard run following a long Williams run in the second quarter. Williams averaged 10.0 yards per carry on 21 carries, while Tolbert scored three one-yard touchdowns in a meaningless regular season finale when Cam Newton played conservatively and rarely opted to run into contact.
Drew Brees became the first player in NFL history to throw for 15000 passing yards in a three season span, and tossed three second half touchdowns as part of a 29/43, 396 yard, 4 score performance. But a 28-0 run by the Panthers thanks to Williams and Tolbert put the Saints down 41-24 midway through the third quarter. Williams' final touchdown was a one-play drive following a 69-yard punt return that Pro Bowler Thomas Morstead chased down.
That long punt return, plus 26 and 36-yard efforts in the first quarter, cost Morstead the NFL record. He entered the game with a net average of 44.4 yards per punt, which would have beaten 49ers P Andy Lee's 43.99 net yard per punt average. But Morstead finished the season with a 43.2 net average thanks to a dismal game.
Cam Newton, despite a poor game from many standards, broke Peyton Manning's record for most passing yards in the his first two seasons with 7,920 yards.
Drew Brees led the league with 43 touchdown passes in 2012, his fourth season leading the NFL in touchdown passes. That ties the NFL record, putting him in league with Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson, Steve Young and Brett Favre. Brees is also the first QB in history with back-to-back seasons of 40 passing touchdowns.
With RB Pierre Thomas on injured reserve, Chris Ivory got the start but Mark Ingram got most of the carries as part of a Saints rushing attack that was abandoned in the second half. Ingram and Ivory combined for only 14 carries and 61 yards on the ground, while Lance Moore, Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston accounted for 26 receptions for 367 yards through the air.
Moore had two enormous catches to spark the Saints' offense, including a 51-yard catch and run on the second play of the third quarter. That led to a Jimmy Graham score and dunk, his first touchdown since November 18. Graham made a fantastic catch on the second drive of the game, surviving a sandwich collision down the seam to make a big third down catch. Colston scored twice on five receptions, and Sproles added a 33-yard score on a screen pass late in the game.
The Saints lost out on an opportunity for a second defensive touchdown when in the third quarter, TE Greg Olsen made a catch in the left flat, clearly fumbled, and CB Johnny Patrick recovered the ball and raced for a touchdown. Officials inexplicably ruled that they could not determined if Patrick made the recovery, an unbelievable conclusion since Patrick picked up the ball in the open field with no one around. Patrick may have stepped out after recovering the ball, but there was no question that Patrick picked it up.
The Saints, who have been stung by refs of the replacement and regular variety all season, needed that turnover. Two plays later Patrick was beaten badly by WR Louis Murphy down the right sideline for a 34-yard gain that would have been a touchdown had Newton's pass not thrown Murphy out of bounds. On the next play, the defense gave up a 54-yard breakaway touchdown run to DeAngelo Wiliiams.
Two drives player, Brees threw a poor pass over the middle into traffic, a ball that Lance Moore had no chance to catch, that was intercepted by CB Charles Godfrey and returned to the Saint 36. Newton hit Steve Smith to the Saint 5, and two plays later Tolbert scored to give the Panthers a 27-24 lead they would not surrender. That interception gave Brees 19 on the season, and thanks to a terrible finale by Cowboys QB Tony Romo, only a share of the league lead for interceptions. Brees finished first or tied for first in passing touchdowns, passing yards, interceptions, passing first downs, and passes over 20 yards.
Newton left the game briefly late in the game after DE Turk McBride tackled him, twisting a right ankle underneath. QB Derek Anderson came in and tossed two passes, one that drew a holding penalty from Johnny Patrick and another for 12 yards to Brandon Lafell that turned into a Tolbert score. The hard hitting Saints would leave Newton with rib and ankle injuries during the game.
The 7-9 Saints will draft 15th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft in April.