January 1, 2012

Saints Wreck Panthers; Tear Up Record Books in Season Finale; Win 45-17

The Saints have completed an undefeated regular season home record, clinched a number of statistical records, and finished the season 13-3 after a demolition of the NFC South rival Panthers.  With San Francisco winning in St. Louis, the Saints had little to play for but kept their starters in for most of the game, finishing a 45-17 domination of the 6-10 Panthers and securing Sean Payton's first Week 17 win as the Saints' head coach.

"I think we accomplished everything today that we wanted to accomplish," Brees told FOX's Pam Oliver after the season.  "Now, a whole new season starts."

The Saints offense and Darren Sproles both set NFL-best season marks.  Second-year Jimmy Graham, the NFC Pro Bowl team starter at tight end, was the first to break Kellen Winslow's record for single season receiving yardage by a tight end, but would eventually be beaten by Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski on the season total.

The Saints finished with 617 total yards of offense in this shellacking of the Panthers, breaking the 2000 Rams' record of 7075 yards early in the game, and finishing with 7474 total yards of offense.

Brees extended his single-season passing record, broken last week against the Falcons, and ended the season with a new league record 5476 yards.

A late handoff to Sproles gave the best free agent signing in recent history the single-season all-purpose yardage record, giving him 169 all-purpose yards on the day, breaking Derrick Mason's 11-year old record of 2690 all-purpose yards.  Sproles finishes the season with 2697 all-purpose yards.

But aside from all those records, the Saints still had a historically tough divisional rival to play.  While the Panthers kept pace for most of the first half, they were shut out and shut down by the Saints' defense in the second half, as the Saints pulled away from a 24-17 halftime lead.

The Saints moved downfield quickly on the opening drive of the game, a four-play drive that picked up five on a run by Thomas, 18 to Colston at the right sideline, 22 on a screen to Thomas and then a breakaway by RB Chris Ivory, who covered the final 35 yards and the opening touchdown with 13:29 left on the clock in the first quarter.

On the Panther's first play, rookie DE Cam Jordan showed great range chasing down TE Jeremy Shockey from across the line to make the tackle at the opposite sideline.  Newton found Steve Smith wide open at the sideline for 17 yards, underneath Tracy Porter.

Two plays later, S Isa Abdul-Quddus stood up and dragged down Jonathan Stewart in the open field.  Though Stewart probably won that battle of momentum, Quddus did make the solo tackle after a short gain.  That play was nullified by illegal formation.  On the next play, Will Smith beat LT Jordan Gross but his hands slid off of Newton's jersey, and Newton ripped up the middle to convert 1st and 15.

Newton continued to move the Panthers down the field, picking up another first down on a diving catch by Shockey, whose catch was announced to boos from the home crowd.  After LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar got an ankle tackle on DeAngelo Williams that probably saved a big gain, on 2nd and 8 the Saints blitzed and blew up a screen as Cam Jordan and Tom Johnson had a free sprint at Newton, who threw it away.  But Ramon Humber was flagged for defensive holding, giving the Panthers yet another first down.  Williams picked up 9 out of the wildcat, then Newton carried the option for the conversion.

Two plays later, Newton threw a fade to Steve Smith, who beat Jabari Greer down the right sideline at the back of the end zone, beautifully toe-tapping the goal line and falling out of bounds.  Greer had a bar-arm on Smith but didn't turn and locate the ball in time to make a play.  The Panthers had moved the ball down easily,  a 13-play drive that never saw a third down.

Ivory picked right back up where he began, breaking multiple tackles on his way to a toss right 11-yard gain, then five on the next carry.  Brees rocked and fired on 2nd and 5, finding a rare sighting of WR Adrian Arrington who made a great catch for a 17-yard gain.  Sproles ripped off an 11 yard gain, then Brees hit Colston on a deep crossing route for 19 yards.

That catch put Colston over 1000 yards on the season, his fifth as a Saint and a new team record.

After a five yard Thomas run, the Saints would face the first third-down attempt of the game with 2:56 left in the first quarter.  An incredible leaping grab by Colston at the back of the end zone picked up the remaining 15 yards of the drive and the 14-7 lead.

First snap of the next Panthers drive saw rookie Cam Jordan with rookie Cam Newton flat-footed in the open field.  Jordan gave Newton a shove and tried to grab hold, but Newton stiff-armed, gave ground and threw the ball away.  On the next play, Steve Smith caught a quick screen and evaded a tnumber of tacklers on ehis way to a 14-yard gain that ended with a rough hit by Roman Harper.  Smith got up and was shoving and jawing with Saint defenders, then he shouted expletives at Sean Payton on the sideline.

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart took turns gashing the Saint defense for big first downs on the next two plays, each one ended with ruffled feathers.  On the next play, DE Cam Jordan had another of his first sacks of the season negated, this time when Jordan sacked Newton for a six yard loss but was flagged for personal foul horse collar, even though Newton broke free and eventually stumbled to the ground.  Ed Hochuli made sure to announce that the horsecollar was a personal foul even if he didn't pull Newton to the ground.

That moved the ball to the Saint 31, and on the first play of the second quarter, out of wildcat DeAngelo Williams gashed the Saints again for 20 yards.  Newton handed to Stewart out of shotgun for an 8 yard gain, then Newton tried a jump pass into the back of the end zone that was a miscommunication with Steve Smith.  High and behind, the pass was caught by a leaping CB Patrick Robinson, who toe-tapped the back inches of the end zone for the touchback interception.

"They keep forgetting about number 12" Joe Buck said as Colston was wide open on a deep crossing again, a 21-yard gain on third and 7.  Three plays later, Chris Ivory moved the chains on 3rd and short, and a nine-yard completion to Thomas and a 14-yard completion to Meachem put the Saints at the Panther 20.

That reception helped the Saints break the 2000 St. Louis Rams' season record for total offense.  Meanwhile, the 2011 Rams were losing to the 49ers.  The Saints needed the Rams, one of the worst teams in the NFL, to beat the 49ers for a shot at the #2 playoff seed.

Two plays later, Brees overthrew Sproles in the left and DB RJ Stanford stepped in front of the pass for the easy interception, returning it from the Panther 11 to the Saint 36 and shoved out of bounds by hustling LT Jermon Bushrod.

Stewart picked up a first down rushing, and two plays later Newton fired into the end zone for TE Greg Olsen, getting the one-on-one matchup with Roman Harper that they wanted.  On the next play on 3rd and 9, Newton facing a blitz and a raucous home crowd fired into no-man's land in the end zone.  Shockey threw his hands up in frustration.

Former Saint K Olindo Mare converted Brees' interception into a 41-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 14-10.

Brees hit Sproles for a 16-yard gain on the screen, then Brees had to throw it away after FOX cameras showed that DB Mike Goodson had a tight hold on the back of Colston's jersey, a clear uncalled foul.  No worries as Pierre Thomas slipped half a dozen tackles and rushed for 15 yards on 2nd and 10.  Brees hit Henderson alone at right sideline for 17 yards, a catch that broke Peyton Manning's record of 450 completions in a season, giving Brees 451.

Meanwhile, Patriot QB Tom Brady broke Dan Marino's old single-season passing yardage record.

Brees' next completion was a riskier one, which was broken up by SS Charles Godfrey over the back of TE Jimmy Graham.  On 3rd and 7, Pierre Thomas dropped a quick screen, leading to John Kasay's 43-yard field goal and a 17-10 lead.

Newton went back to work down by a touchdown and 2:42 left in the half, hitting Jonathan Stewart for 11, and then Shockey for six, who shoved Roman Harper after the play, unflagged.  Steve Smith made a franchise record-breaking catch, snagging a Newton fastball at his knees at the sideline for a 20-yard gain.  Newton hit Lafell for 14, then handed off to Stewart who finished the remaining 29 yards untouched up the middle on shotgun redirection.  Mare's extra point tied the game at 17 with 1:25 left in the half, as the Panthers had struck back covering 80 yards in 1:17.

The Saints took a time out after a quick dumpoff to Sproles was dumped for a five yard loss.  Out of shotgun and retreating back to his five yard line, Brees hit Colston, who turned and dove up to the 28 yard line, spotted inches short of the first down marker.  Brees quick-snapped the 3rd and inches and snuck ahead behind his center and guards, catching the Panthers off guard picking up a yard.  The Saints burned timeout #2, the Brees went to work, hitting Jimmy Graham for 10 then 15 and calling the final timeout.

Out of shotgun and waiting at midfield, Brees pumpfaked then fired a bomb for Colston, who was walking into the end zone behind DB Sherrod Martin to match the improbable catch with seven seconds left in the half.  The 42-yard touchdown bomb to Colston put the Saints up 24-17 in a display of two inept defenses.

Gregg Williams' defense had struggled against the Panthers, who had ripped them for 135 yards rushing in the first half.  Newton was 9/14 for 106 yards and a touchdown at this point of the game, most of that yardage to the fiery Steve Smith who had 4/63 and a touchdown.

Brees was 16/23 for 249 yards in the first half, and with the 49ers up 20-7 at halftime, Payton had to consider benching him for Daniel and nothing to play for.  Colston had six receptions for 129 yards at the half.

The Saints finally got a sack on Newton to stick when an all-out blitz found rookie LB Martez Wilson dropping Newton for a huge 16-yard loss.  A play earlier, rookie DE Cam Jordan was there on Newton again, but the quarterback got an overthrown incompletion off.  

Wilson's sack ended the Panther's half-opening drive and provoked the game's first punt, returned by Darren Sproles for seven yards to the Saint 39.

Brees' next completion was to Graham, who backpedaling and with LB Jordan Senn all over him, made a one-handed catch of a bomb for a 29 yard gain.  Two plays later, Colston suffered a tremendous hit from Sherrod Martin in the lower back, but came down with a 16-yard gain to the Panther 10.

On the next play, Brees sat in the backfield and waited as a ref threw a holding flag on Pro Bowl starter RG Jahri Evans on DT Frank Kearse.  Brees tossed across the field and Meachem made an fantastic leaping touchdown catch, but as expected, it was nullified by Evans' penalty.

No matter, two plays later on 3rd and goal from the 20, TE Jimmy Graham caught an easy seam over LB James Anderson and in front of Martin, a 20-yard touchdown that put him within 4 yards of Kellen Winslow's single season mark for receiving yards.  Needing 78 yards to break the record, Graham had 74 on the day at that point.

More pushing and shoving broke out after the next kickoff return, run out of the end zone by Kealoha Pilares to the Panther 17.  On the next play, rookie DE Cam Jordan was frustratingly close again to his first career sack, chasing down Newton and hitting his arm as he released, forcing an incomplete pass on first down.

After dropping Stewart for a four yard loss on second down, a host of Saints had a shot to bring down Newton, foremost DE Junior Galette hanging on to Newton's ankles but unable to bring him down as Newton escaped the pocket and ran upfield.  Rookie CB Johnny Patrick upended Newton 7 yards shy of the first down marker, and the Saints defense had forced their second straight punt.

Brees went over 300 yards on the day with a 16-yard strike on a deep left out to Meachem.  Two plays later, Brees hit Graham for a five yard gain, putting Graham at 79 on the day and 1292 on the season, a new NFL record.  Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski was also challenging the record, but was still 29 yards short of the record when Graham broke Winslow's mark.

Chris Ivory broke off an eight yard run then Devery Henderson on the end around picked up nine yards and was tackled inches short of the goal line.  On the next play, Brees fooled everyone with the run fake and rolled right, dumped an easy pass to a wide open FB Jed Collins, who walked in for the touchdown, fake spiked the ball, laid it down and boogied ridiculously in celebration.  Brees' fourth touchdown of the day put the Saints up 38-17.

Newton picked up a first down on the next drive with a throw to LaFell, but the Saints held the run game in check and Roman Harper forced an incompletion on a third down throw to Shockey to force the third straight Jason Baker punt.

With Sproles just 50 yards short of a record for all-purpose yardage, Brees started feeding Sproles the ball.  Sproles lowered his head into Senn on second down, nearly knocking Senn's helmet off and leveling the tackler after a six yard gain and a first down on the last play of the third quarter.

Sproles carried again for nine yards on the first play of the fourth quarter, and then again for two yards and the first down.  On the next play Brees dropped and made a throw to a wide-open Devery Henderson, an underthrown ball that Henderson had to stop and fall down to catch for a 31 yard gain, putting the Saints over 500 yards of total offense with 13 minutes left in the game.

After a five yard catch by backup TE Michael Higgins, Brees went for Sproles, who caught the ball in the right flat, turned, and beat Senn to the right front corner of the end zone, a nine yard catch leaving him just four yards short of the single-season all-purpose record.

The score put the Saints up 45-17 and would turn out to be the last touchdown of the regular season for the historic Saints' season.  It is Brees' 46th touchdown pass of the season and fifth of the day, putting him ahead of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers, who did not play today in a meaningless game for Green Bay against Detroit.

The Panthers put on a 12-yard screen on a play when Newton was hit and dropped as the Panthers got moving again. After an overthrown deep pass, Saints LB Martez Wilson leveled DeAngelo Williams out of bounds on the next play, adding 15 yards and moving the Panthers to their own 48.  Newton fired too far deep again, then scrambled for a four yard gain, unable to wiggle free of DT Tom Johnson.  Newton hit Steve Smith on a long-developing crossing route but Patrick Robinson tracked him down and stopped him after a single yard gain, forcing a fourth straight Panther punt, who were shut out in the second half.

Finishing 28/35 for 389 yards and five touchdowns, Brees was pulled and backup Chase Daniel was in.  Brees ended the season with a new league record 5476 yards.

A handoff to Sproles for an eight yard gain gave the diminutive star the all-purpose record, giving him 169 all-purpose yards on the day, just another broken record for the Saints.  Sproles broke Derrick Mason's 11-year old record of 2690 all-purpose yards.

In the game, Daniel converted a first down with a four yard pass to Graham, but couldn't convert 3rd and 3 with a short gain to Jed Collins.  On the 4th and 1 try, Daniel was flagged for false start on the head bob, and Morstead punted.  After a holding call on the Saints, the Panthers took over at their own 30, and a long completion to Steve Smith put the Panthers up to midfield when Smith fumbled.  Several Saints tried to pick up the ball before Tracy Porter finally recovered it and was tackled immediately at the Saint 31.

Refs for some reason reversed themselves and ruled that Smith was down, and Payton immediately challenged.  The replay review showed clearly that Abdul-Quddus forced the fumble, and Chase Daniel was back on the field.

Meanwhile, Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski had barely moved ahead of Graham on receiving yards, so while Graham was the first to break Kellen Winslow's record, Gronkowski was in the lead to finish with more yards on the season.

A handoff to Ivory for a first down gain saw Panthers DT DeMario Pressley, a former Saint draft pick, slow to get up.  Ivory continued to pound the rock, and two plays later was dragged down by his hair by LB James Anderson.  After five straight carries by Ivory for 32 total yards, Daniel hit TE Jimmy Graham for a 14-yard gain, putting Graham temporarily ahead of Gronkowski again.

Gronkowski would catch a 22-yard pass from backups Patriots QB Brant Hoyer, finishing with 108 yards on the day and beating Graham for the single season total with 1327 receiving yards on the season to 1310 for Graham.

Another seven yard run by Chris Ivory, giving him 127 on the day, and Daniel kneeled off the remaining minute.  Daniel completed all three of his pass attempts for 20 yards, finishing the season 4/6 for 29 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.  Ivory finished the season with 374 yards rushing, and will play prominently in the Saints' rush attack in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, a late Rams surge wasn't enough, and the 49ers won in St. Louis 34-27, sealing the #2 seed.

Notes: Darren Sproles left the game after a first quarter carry but remained on the sidelines in uniform, returned and broke the record... WR Robert Meachem was injured later in the game and did not return...  LB Will Herring was taken to the locker room with an undisclosed injury...

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