CHARLOTTE – With the game on the line, New Orleans Saints quarterback Luke McCown went after cornerback Josh Norman – arguably Carolina's best defensive player at the moment.
He paid the price.
On third-and-6, with 1:17 left in the game and the Saints trailing 27-22, McCown tossed a pass to the right side of the end zone for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Norman reacted with a full-extension leap to snatch the ball for a game-sealing interception.
"I know the things they like to do in that area of the field, and I just had a bead on it," said Norman, still catching his breath after having the wind knocked out of him when he landed. "I saw ball and got ball. I went to go get it."
McCown filled in admirably for injured starter Drew Brees, completing 31-of-36 passes for 310 yards. Carolina's defense struggled to get off the field, as New Orleans converted 7-of-12 third downs.
But when the Panthers needed a play, Norman was there to provide it, giving Carolina its first 3-0 start since 2003 and sending the division rival Saints to 0-3.
"That was a hell of a team victory," head coach Ron Rivera said. "They fought, scratched and did a lot of good things.
"It's unfortunate we had the opportunity to play better, and that's the thing we pretty much got across to our guys. I'm very pleased with the team victory though."
The Saints put the pressure on Carolina right from the start. McCown engineered a 12-play, 67-yard drive that led to a 31-yard field goal from Zach Hocker. New Orleans followed that with a 16-play, 94-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram and churned 9:11 off the clock.
"It was putting a lot of pressure on us," quarterback Cam Newton said. "Points and drives were at a premium. We had to respond."
The Panthers responded with a touchdown drive of their own. After a 4-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen was nullified by an offensive pass interference call on fellow tight end Richie Brockel, Newton went back to Olsen for an 11-yard score two plays later.
It was Olsen who kick-started a two-minute drill to end the half, as he hauled in a 52-yard reception just before the two-minute warning. Graham Gano later converted a 20-yard field goal to tie the game 10-10 at halftime.
A penalty changed things dramatically at the start of the second half. The Panthers punted, and New Orleans returner Marcus Murphy was taken down at his own 9-yard line. But Carolina gunner Teddy Williams was penalized for going out of bounds and not returning to the field of play quickly enough.
Brad Nortman was forced to punt again, and this time Murphy returned it 74 yards for a touchdown, giving the Saints a 16-10 lead after a bobbled snap led to a missed extra point.
Williams was beside himself.
"Playing gunner is one of the toughest positions, especially when you are getting doubled. I was fighting, but they threw the flag," Williams said. "I was so upset. We tackled the guy inside the 15, and then it comes back. It changed the game. That could have ultimately cost us."
The Newton-to-Olsen connection quickly put the Panthers back in front as the Pro Bowl tight end recorded his second 11-yard touchdown grab of the day.
The game's first takeaway allowed Carolina to extend the lead. Linebacker Thomas Davis forced tight end Benjamin Watson to fumble, and safety Roman Harper recovered at the Panthers' 42-yard line.
Newton used his trademark athletic ability to avoid a sack on third-and-5 from the Saints' 41-yard line, picking up nine yards on a scramble. That eventually led to a 47-yard field goal from Gano to give the Panthers a 20-16 lead late in the third quarter.
"That third down pickup (Cam) had – that was as big a play in the game as there was," Olsen said.
Newton took matters into his own hands again early in the fourth quarter. On third-and-2, Newton fooled the defense by faking a handoff to fullback Mike Tolbert and running a bootleg off the left side for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Saints wouldn't go away quietly. Running back Khiry Robinson rushed for a 2-yard score, but the two-point conversion attempt failed.
New Orleans then did what it had to defensively, forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing Panthers possession to get the ball back with 3:50 remaining. But the comeback bid ended in the hands of Norman in the end zone.
"We know it's not always going to be roses. There are going to be tough times as well," Rivera said. "As long as we continue to fight and do the things we are capable of, we give ourselves a chance to win football games."
View game action photos from Carolina's 27-22 win over New Orleans.