NEW ORLEANS – Carolina couldn't reclaim the top spot in the NFC South, falling 31-21 to division rival New Orleans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"We just hit a lull right there playing a type of team like this, and games moving forward we need to find a way to keep and stay on task," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We didn't do that today.
"We didn't play complementary football."
With the Panthers already down a touchdown early in the second quarter, punter Michael Palardy fumbled J.J. Jansen's snap at Carolina's 31 and was called for targeting an ineligible receiver in desperation. New Orleans took over just outside the red zone.
"[Palardy] just dropped it," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That's something that unfortunately happens."
With the help of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on defensive end Julius Peppers, the Saints moved the chains on an important third-and-5, and quarterback Drew Brees eventually connected with wide receiver Michael Thomas for a 10-yard score and a 21-7 lead. The Panthers didn't reach 21 points until the waning minutes.
The Panthers did claw back within a touchdown before halftime on the back of a Saints fumble forced by safety Mike Adams. The veteran punched the ball loose from Saints tight end Josh Hill's grasp, allowing lurking linebacker Luke Kuechly to recover to the fumble. The Panthers' offense took the field at New Orleans' 45, and Newton immediately hit wide receiver Brenton Bersin for 18 yards. Three plays later, Newton found running back Christian McCaffrey for 21-yard catch and run into the end zone.
The Saints, however, struck first on the other side of the break.
Brees linked up with wide receiver Willie Snead for 26 yards to move the chains on third-and-5 at New Orleans' 46, and two plays later running back Alvin Kamara scored his second touchdown of the day. The third-round pick broke free around the outside for 20 yards to cap off the eight-play, 67-yard drive. The Saints led 28-14 at the end of the third quarter.
"You can prepare for everything you want, [Kamara] has some elite ability," Rivera said. "They scheme very well; they do some good things with what Coach (Sean) Payton calls. Right now they're real difficult to defend because of all the other weapons they have."
New Orleans added to its advantage in the fourth quarter and sealed the victory with a 31-yard field goal. Newton's second touchdown pass of the day, this one to Devin Funchess for 24 yards, closed the gap, but Funchess' all-out effort on the ensuing onsides kick didn't pay off as he was ruled out of bounds.
"We just have to move forward, be optimistic of our opportunities knowing that the world isn't going to stop because of the Panthers' loss today," Newton said. "We have to learn from this. We will learn from this, and will be better and prepare for Minnesota."
The Panthers (8-4) did remain in playoff position and ahead in the diviison of Atlanta (7-5), which lost to the Vikings earlier in the day. Next week, Minnesota comes to Charlotte to kick off three consecutive home games.
"This stretch going forward, we just have to catch fire in a good way, and I believe that we will," Newton said.
View photos from Carolina's Week 13 loss to New Orleans.