Panthers beat Saints for first time since 2009
Fighting against division rival New Orleans on Sunday, Carolina managed to cure its a Achilles' heel in games most of last season — the ability to finish.
Up eight points at halftime, the Panthers' offensive continued to churn and their defense stepped up in crucial moments, helping Carolina come away with a 35-27 victory against the Saints in the home opener at Bank of America Stadium.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the win was definitely a step forward after struggling in a 16-10 week one loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1).
"We came back and played the way we are capable of both offensively and defensively," Rivera said. "The stats won't show it defensively, but the way we played to sort of slow (New Orleans) down is a heck of a deal for us. (New Orleans) came out and made plays. You have to give them credit, but when we had to, I think our defense bowed their neck and made some plays for us. They were the spark today."
Quarterback Cam Newton, who threw for 253 yards, ran for another 71 and scored two touchdowns (one passing and one rushing), liked what he saw out of his squad.
"The vibe is changing, not only in this team, but this organization," he said. "Today, we found out our potential is through the roof, but potential has never won a football game."
Down a touchdown early after Saints quarterback Drew Brees found tight end Jimmy Graham, the Panthers defense made up for the score.
After going three and out on offense, Carolina (1-1) pinned New Orleans (0-2) deep in its own territory at the seven-yard line.
On the second play of the drive, Panthers safety Charles Godfrey intercepted Brees and returned it nine yards for the game-tying score.
Godfrey finished the game with 11 tackles to go along with his pick six.
"We have to start fast," Godfrey said. "We pride our defense on turnovers. We did that today. The offense played well. They got the ball in the end zone. We just got it going on defense. You've just got to make the plays that come to you. (Brees) scrambled out, threw the ball, I picked it and got into the end zone."
The Saints added a pair of Garrett Hartley field goals from 22 and 53 yards to regain the lead, 13-7, but the Panthers answered with a flurry of offense.
Newton connected on three big passes during his team's third drive of the game, including a 35-yard toss to Steve Smith and an 11-yard strike to Brandon LaFell.
LaFell had a breakthrough game against the Saints secondary, catching six passes for 90 yards. Smith added three catches for 104 yards.
"Brandon has really developed into a fine receiver," Rivera said. "He really is a solid football player. He just showed what he is capable of."
Newton said he was also impressed by LaFell's performance.
"Brandon is playing unbelievable football," he said. "I think Smitty demands that out of everybody in the meeting room. It's contagious."
Newton's most important completion came when he found running back Jonathan Stewart on a 17-yard pass and catch to give the Panthers a one-point edge, 14-13.
Just before halftime, Carolina made another scoring drive of 58 yards, capped by a fullback Mike Tolbert two-yard scamper.
After trading possessions to start the second half, running back DeAngelo Williams helped pad the Panthers' lead with a three-yard touchdown run.
Williams had three rushes on the drive for 31 yards and a score.
Down 28-13, the Saints rallied to cut the lead to eight with a one-yard rushing touchdown from Mark Ingram, but the Panthers answered right back.
Newton found a wide open Smith for a 66-yard reception on the very first play of the next Carolina possession. The drive ended when Newton rushed up the middle five yards for the touchdown to put his team up 35-20 with 9:55 left.
Trying to close out an important victory, the Panther 'D' had to once again step up to stop the Saints, forcing Brees to throw an incomplete pass on 4th down and 4.
The Saints would get the ball back and cut the lead to eight points when Brees scored from one yard out with 1:55 left.
However, the Panthers recovered a Thomas Morstead onside kick and ran out the clock to come away with the victory — their first of the season and first in NFC South play.
The Saints fall to 0-2 for the first time since the 2007 season.
Sunday's win by the Panthers was also the first time they had beaten a Drew Brees-led New Orleans team since Dec. 28, 2008.
The Panthers lead the all-time series against the Saints, 18-17.
The challenges don't get any easier for Carolina, which welcomes the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (1-1) to Bank of America Stadium in primetime on Thursday.
"I think we've put ourselves in position now where we've got to battle one week at a time and see how we do," Rivera said. "We've got the Giants next game. That will be big for us."
Newton said it's not just Thursday's game that his team has to worry about.
"I think every single game going forward is the most important," he said. "Yea, this is a great win. We beat an excellent team in New Orleans, but that's last week to a degree. That's our mentality. We're going to celebrate tonight and take heed in what we've done. We know going forward we're about to play a good New York Giants team with an explosive offense and defense."
Linebacker Thomas Davis and tackle Byron Bell both suffered injuries. Davis tweeked his hamstring toward the end of Sunday's game, while Bell twisted his ankle.
Wide receiver Steve Smith left Sunday's game with an apparent injury, but later returned. Rivera said after Sunday's game that Smith had been suffering from cramps, but he is fine.