NEW ORLEANS – The Panthers took out seven weeks of winless frustration Sunday on the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Carolina was the vastly superior team from start to finish. The Panthers, who had scored just one first-half touchdown in the previous six games, scored a touchdown on their opening drive and forced turnovers on the Saints' first two possessions.
They built an early lead and never looked back, cruising to an emphatic 41-10 victory.
"This was huge for our confidence," linebacker Thomas Davis said.
The Panthers chose to receive the opening kickoff and made it clear they would be the ones dictating the game with a precise first drive.
It was quarterback Cam Newton at his best. Newton completed all five passes for 56 yards and ran twice for 24 yards. His nine-yard, outside-shoulder strike to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin gave Carolina a 7-0 lead and allowed the Panthers to forget about the red zone woes that had plagued them for weeks.
"We talked about starting fast. It has been a point of emphasis," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It has been a while since we really felt good about what we felt we could do in terms of the guys that we had playing and getting used to the guys that we're playing. Cam (Newton) had a real good handle and a good feel of what we were doing, the guys that were around him.
"Everything just kind of fell into place and came together."
The Panthers' defense took a cue from the offense and started just as fast.
Cornerback Josh Norman punched the ball away from Saints running back Mark Ingram on New Orleans' second play. Defensive tackle Colin Cole made the recovery at the Saints' 25-yard line.
"We came out aggressive right from the start," Norman said. "Our defense came out flying, we were hungry, and we came out intense."
Carolina would settle for a 37-yard Graham Gano field goal after Newton missed wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery on third down, but the defense quickly gave the offense another short field.
Rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere recorded his first career interception on the first play of the ensuing Saints possession. Saints quarterback Drew Brees' lofted a deep pass down the middle for wide receiver Joseph Morgan, and Benwikere made a spectacular play on the ball at the Carolina 40-yard line.
"I just understood that the deep threat was in front of me," Benwikere said. "I knew they were going to come my way. Anytime I can get the ball, I want it."
The Panthers went no-huddle and marched down the New Orleans 2-yard line in five plays. On third-and-one, Newton launched himself over the pile, stretching the ball over the goal line for the 2-yard touchdown and 17-0 lead.
A fight ensued after Newton scored and inadvertently made contact with Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. From there, tempers flared. When the dust settled, tight end Brandon Williams and Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton received personal fouls and Williams was ejected.
"I just saw somebody push our quarterback. Our guys reacted," Rivera said. "It's unfortunate that it happened that way, but it's kind of also part of the game."
Shayne Graham got New Orleans on the board with a 37-yard field goal early in the second quarter. He later missed a 42-yard attempt on the Saints' next possession, and the Panthers responded with a 12-play, 68-yard touchdown drive.
The Panthers, who had been running the ball effectively, went play-action on third-and-one with the Saints expecting run. Tight end Greg Olsen was left wide open for a 16-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 24-3 lead at halftime.
"It wasn't anything magical," Olsen said. "It was just efficient offensive football from the opening snap. It was fun. It was enjoyable."
Carolina wasted no time adding to its lead in the second half. Following a Saints' three-and-out, Newton handed the ball to running back Jonathan Stewart on a read-option, and Stewart sprinted untouched off the right side for a 69-yard touchdown – the longest touchdown run of his career.
"It was an easy read, and that's something that you look for with that play we ran," said Stewart, who rushed 20 times for 155 yards. "I just turned it on and ran as fast as I could."
Newton's third touchdown pass came later in the third quarter when he tossed a screen pass to running back Fozzy Whittaker, who used the blocking in front of him to record a 26-yard score.
A 41-yard field goal by Gano gave the Panthers a 41-3 lead early in the fourth quarter. New Orleans reached the end zone in the closing moments when Brees connected with tight end Benjamin Watson for a 7-yard touchdown.
"It feels good. It tells you guys are not quitting," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "Guys are committed to what they do. There is no quit with this team. I'm proud of the team. I'm proud to know that people care and are not giving up."