NEW ORLEANS -- Carolina's seven-game losing streak took the steam out of the Week 17 matchup, but the Panthers halted the skid with a 33-14 road victory over the Saints to end the 2018 regular season.
After building a 23-0 lead at halftime, their largest first half edge since leading by 21 in their Week 9 win versus Tampa Bay, the Panthers continued to roll in the second half. The lead grew to 30-0 on undrafted rookie quarterback Kyle Allen's 53-yard bomb to receiver Curtis Samuel before the Saints finally got on the board in the fourth quarter.
Saints quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, in his first start since 2016 with Drew Brees inactive, broke up the shutout with a 9-yard touchdown pass to rookie wideout Tre'Quan Smith. Moments later, Allen would go down after a vicious sack by Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport, bringing on Garrett Gilbert - who was signed last week after Taylor Heinicke was placed on injured reserve - for his first regular season action.
Gilbert's first pass - an 18-yard completion to rookie tight end Ian Thomas - helped set-up a 51-yard field goal by kicker Chandler Catanzaro to give Carolina a 33-7 lead. Three plays into the ensuing drive, safety Colin Jones intercepted a Bridgewater pass at the Carolina 43.
A Panthers turnover on downs gave the Saints the ball back, which quarterback Taysom Hill carried in on a 9-yard run a few plays later to cut the deficit to 19, but the game was all but over.
"It kind of cleansed it a little bit, going forward. The big questions that will linger for us is ‘What if? What if? What if?’ I get that part of it. To get off the schneid, I think, is pretty cool for the guys," said head coach Ron Rivera on closing the season with a win. "It gives us the opportunity to head off into the offseason a little bit with their heads up.
"It’s probably the best way to send Ryan (Kalil) and Pep off on their way. (They are) two great Panthers. It’s kind of nice for them.”
Sunday's contest was the final chapter in center Ryan Kalil's storied NFL career, but, as Rivera eluded to, Week 17 could also be the last game for Julius Peppers. The legendary defensive end finished with four tackles, one pass deflection and a sack, moving him 0.5 sacks away (159.5 for his career) from third all-time in the category.
In his first start, Allen finished 16-of-27 for 228 yards and two touchdowns, and added 19 rushing yards and a score. Samuel finished with 72 receiving yards and a touchdown while rookie wideout DJ Moore added four receptions for 81 yards. Thomas totaled 61 receiving yards and a touchdown, his second this season.
"He is one of those guys that can take a moment and make it what it is. Some guys get moments like that and seem to blow it out of proportion. Kyle always seems to have that same, steady approach. I appreciate that," said Rivera of Allen's debut. "The moment just never seems to get too big for him."
Bridgewater ended the game going 14-of-22 for 118 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Wide receiver Michael Thomas was held to 29 receiving yards and no scores, but did pass Joe Horn for most receiving yards in a single-season in Saints history. Brees, running back Alvin Kamara and former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. were among the team's seven inactive players, all of which were on offense.
Three lengthy touchdown drives defined an intriguing first half for Carolina. After opening the game with a false start, the offense shook off the jitters and drove 80 yards for their first score. The score appeared to go to Moore after a 20-yard catch and run, but the ruling was reversed and, with Carolina at the 1, Allen kept it and earned his first career touchdown.
Back-to-back 16-yard gains by running back Mark Ingram gave the Saints early momentum, but the Panthers defense eventually forced a punt. On the fifth play of the Panthers' second drive, Saints linebacker AJ Klein earned a strip-sack on Allen, but the drive was saved when the fumble ruling was reversed.
A defensive pass interference on Saints cornerback Eli Apple on a deep pass to Samuel gifted the Panthers 39 yards, putting them on the New Orleans 25. Three plays later, running back Cameron Artis-Payne, who replaced Christian McCaffrey to start the drive, took a 15-yard rush to the house for his first score of the season. Catanzaro missed the PAT to keep the lead at 13 near the end of the quarter.
Bridgewater helped get New Orleans in the red zone early in the second. On fourth-and-2, Bridgewater lobbed a pass to Smith in the end zone, but a pass breakup by corner Captain Munnerlyn prevented the score, forcing a turnover on downs.
Carolina would take over with 9:45 to go and put together a 16-play, 90-yard scoring series, increasing the lead to 20. Allen hit Thomas with a 8-yard pass to secure his second career TD.
Two sacks on Bridgewater - one by Peppers and another by defensive end Mario Addison - spoiled the Saints' last drive of the half and Carolina capitalized with a 22-yard field goal to end the half with a 23-0 lead.