NEW ORLEANS – Linebacker Luke Kuechly was furious on Thanksgiving Day when the Panthers gave up a two-point conversion that cut their lead to 19 points in the waning minutes, so you can imagine how he felt after the Panthers gave up 38 points to the New Orleans Saints.
And you would be wrong.
"We'll tighten some things up on defense moving forward," Kuechly said, "but you've got to enjoy this day."
On a day when Drew Brees was at his best, when he put up the type of numbers that have led to countless Saints victories, the Panthers were still the ones celebrating.
Quarterback Cam Newton did Brees one better, rallying the Panthers not once, not twice but three times to a 41-38 victory that improved them to 12-0 and capped a day that started with them clinching their third consecutive NFC South championship.
"This was a wake-up call for us. Moving forward, we know we can't win games by just showing up," Newton said. "But this feels great. That's the big picture."
The Panthers have now won an NFC-record 16 consecutive regular season games, a streak that started in New Orleans a year ago. This one wasn't nearly as comfortable as the 31-point triumph that started the historic streak.
After Brees tossed his third touchdown pass to put New Orleans ahead 38-34 with 5:21 to play, Newton and the Panthers got one last chance to continue their unbeaten season. Carolina got the touchdown it needed, eventually capping an adventure-filled march with Newton's fifth touchdown toss, a 15-yarder in the middle of the end zone to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery with 1:05 on the clock.
The Saints reached midfield in the final seconds but stalled there.
"Once we got the call in, I knew it was 'good money,'" Cotchery said. "I knew we were going to get man coverage. I knew it was up to me to take care of the end of it."
Cotchery wouldn't have gotten a chance if not for a clutch play earlier in the drive. Facing fourth-and-4 at the New Orleans 46 and with the clock ticking down toward the two-minute warning, the Panthers opted to go for it. Newton looked for old reliable – tight end Greg Olsen – but the Saints were on the lookout for him as well, until Newton scrambled and bought Olsen time to break free for a 16-yard gain.
"I just had a drag route. They covered us pretty good," Olsen said. "Cam did what he's good at – he extended the play, and I turned up the sideline. The guy guarding me had to either play Cam or play me. Cam was able to shovel it to me."
During the two-minute warning, officials reviewed whether the pass hit the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf before Olsen secured it. The call stood.
"I caught it solidly," Olsen said. "I didn't even think it was close."
Some thought the game, with the Saints entering at 4-7 and on a three-game slide, wouldn't be close. For a while it looked like it might be a blowout – in favor of the Saints.
"We got ourselves in trouble early in the game," center Ryan Kalil said. "We didn't do a good job early on with turnovers and penalties. We just couldn't get into a rhythm, and those guys came to play."
The Panthers fell behind 14-0 when Brees hit tight end Benjamin Watson for a 14-yard score and rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony stripped running back Jonathan Stewart and ran 31 yards for a touchdown. It could have been worse as three of Carolina's first five drives ended with turnovers, but the defense hadn't given up a touchdown following a turnover all season, and it didn't again Sunday.
Carolina got going late in the first quarter, beginning its response with an 80-yard scoring drive, capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass from Newton to fullback Mike Tolbert on the first play of the second quarter. The Panthers were poised to tie it when Stewart scored on a 5-yard run on the first play after the two-minute warning, but defensive tackle Kevin Williams blocked Graham Gano's extra point, and Anthony returned it 82 yards for the first such two-point play in NFL history and a 16-13 halftime lead for the Saints.
"You can't take things for granted. Extra points aren't automatic anymore," head coach Ron Rivera said. "You've got to play every play as if it's the most important play.
"That almost came back to bite us in the rear."
Fortunately, the Panthers offense kept rolling after halftime, finding the end zone on its first two drives against the only defense in the NFL allowing 30-plus points on average. A pair of 13-yard touchdown tosses – the first to Ted Ginn, Jr., the second to Devin Funchess – appeared to put the Panthers in control at 27-16.
But it was the Saints' turn to rally, scoring consecutive touchdowns of their own to retake the lead early in the fourth quarter. Brees hit wide receiver Brandin Cooks with a 54-yard bomb, then connected with Brandon Coleman for a 24-yard score and a 31-27 lead.
"(Saints head coach) Sean (Payton) is a heck of a play caller – we all know that – so give them all the credit in the world for what they did out there today," said safety Roman Harper, who spent his first eight NFL seasons in New Orleans. "But overall, we've got to be better, and we will be better next week because of what happened this week."
Three more lead changes were still to come. First, Carolina reclaimed the lead when Newton hit Ginn for a 45-yard score. Then the Saints went back on top when running back Mark Ingram finished off an 88-yard march with a 9-yard touchdown run to set up another fantastic finish orchestrated by Newton.
"(Cam) was able to win a shootout and lead a drive in the fourth quarter that gave us a chance to win," Rivera said. "It goes back to his whole development as a quarterback in this league. I'm really proud of what he did and the confidence he played with."
Week 13: Saints vs. Panthers