NEW ORLEANS - The first half of Sunday's regular season finale between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints took on the look of a game where the team possessing the ball last would win.
In the second half, however, only the Saints kept up the pace.
After the Panthers tied the game late in the first half, the Saints responded with 28 unanswered points to pull away for a 45-17 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Panthers (6-10) entered the finale with victories in four of their previous five games but couldn't keep it going against a New Orleans team (13-3) heading to the playoffs.
"They came out in the second half and showed why they're going to the playoffs and why we're not," Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "The first half, they couldn't really stop us, but we just came out in the second half real flat. They hit us in the mouth right before halftime, came out in the second half and kept hitting us in the mouth. We never retaliated."
On a day when the Saints passed the 2000 St. Louis Rams as the most prolific offense in NFL history before halftime, they piled up 617 yards of total offense and 33 first downs – 122 yards and four first downs more than the Panthers had ever allowed in team history.
The Panthers had 235 yards in the first half but just 66 in the second half to total 301. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who finished 15-of-25 for 158 yards and rushed for 32 yards, became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 500 yards in a season.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees finished with 389 passing yards and five touchdowns before sitting out most of the fourth quarter.
"We had an OK first half but got sidetracked in the second half, while the opposing team led by Drew Brees did a phenomenal job of staying the course and executing," Newton said. "I think the Saints punted once. If we're looking to be an elite offense in this league, we're going to have to keep delivering the blow."
The game was up for grabs at halftime, with New Orleans leading 24-17, but the Saints seized control in the third quarter. While New Orleans forced Carolina into the first three punts of the game on the Panthers' first three second-half possessions, the Saints continued kicking extra points to blow it open.
Tight end Jimmy Graham caught a 19-yard touchdown from Brees with 8:54 left in the third quarter, fullback Jed Collins caught a 1-yard touchdown with 3:47 left in the third quarter, and running back Darren Sproles caught a 9-yard touchdown with 12:15 left in the game.
Five of the Saints' six touchdowns came through the air, but they excelled on the ground as well, gaining 208 yards.
"It was really disappointing, maybe even the way they ran the ball more than anything else," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, whose already depleted defense lost cornerback Darius Butler to a broken arm. "They were able to do some things that we hadn't really allowed the last five weeks, and that was definitely disappointing. If anything, we should have made them one-dimensional, but I'm not sure if that's a good thing either as well as they throw the ball."
Both offenses were virtually unstoppable in the early going, with it looking like both teams would find the end zone on each of their first two drives of the game.
The Saints did, with touchdown drives of 80 and 83 yards. The Panthers almost did, with drives of 80 and 78 yards.
Carolina scored on its first possession on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Newton to wide receiver Steve Smith but turned it over on its second drive. From New Orleans' 4-yard line, Newton took a shotgun snap, faked a quarterback draw but then pulled up and lofted a pass to the back of the end zone for Smith that cornerback Patrick Robinson intercepted.
The Saints went right back down the field, but the Panthers defense answered once New Orleans reached the red zone. From Carolina's 19, Brees threw a pass down the left side that cornerback R.J. Stanford stepped in front of and picked off, returning the interception 53 yards to the Saints 36.
The teams then traded field goals before Carolina caught up with a lightning strike of its own. Receptions of 20 yards by Smith and 14 yards by LaFell set up running back Jonathan Stewart to steam 29 yards untouched on a draw for a touchdown to tie it at 17 with 1:18 left in the first half.
"When we went down and scored, the first thing I thought was, 'We left too much time,' " Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Brees can make a lot of stuff happen with no very much time."
That's exactly what happened, as the Saints marched 81 yards in 1:11 to take a 24-17 lead with seven seconds remaining in the half. The fastbreak drive, culminating with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Brees to wide receiver Marques Colston, concluded a half in which the Saints racked up 360 yards with a dozen plays of 15 or more yards.
The Panthers weren't heard from again.
"It takes a lot of wind out of your sail for them to come out and do what they did," Rivera said. "But today is not indicative of the way we've been playing the last five weeks, and we played a football team that's on a roll. It's tough."