Carolina 41, New Orleans 38
When: 4:25 PM ET, Sunday, December 6, 2015
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
NEW ORLEANS -- If there ever were a chance for the Carolina Panthers to see their perfect season come crashing to an end, Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the New Orleans Saints seemed to be the perfect opportunity.
The brutally efficient Panthers offense committed three first-half turnovers, and Carolina even had an extra-point attempt blocked and returned for two points by the Saints for the first time in NFL history.
But the Panthers also have a quarterback named Cam Newton, who threw for 331 yards and five touchdowns, including a 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jerricho Cotchery with 1:05 left, to lift the Panthers to a 41-38 comeback victory and keep their season perfect at 12-0.
The victory clinched the Panthers' third consecutive NFC South division title.
With Carolina trailing 38-34, Newton was nearly perfect on the Panthers' game-winning, 75-yard, 11-play drive. After receiver Ted Ginn Jr. dropped what would have been a sure 57-yard touchdown pass, Carolina faced a fourth-and-4 from the Saints' 46.
Newton scrambled to his left and tossed a short lob to tight end Greg Olsen, who had improvised and broken open on the left sidelines as Newton was flushed from the pocket. Olsen snagged the ball just before it hit the turf.
"Everything was on that play, and that's why we did it," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "We had to have it made, and I'm really proud of the guys. We have a very resilient group of guys who take the good with the bad, and that gave us a chance to win the game."
Olsen said he made a clean catch, which was confirmed by replay officials after a Saints challenge.
"I really was surprised it got challenged," said Olsen, who caught nine passes for 129 yards. "I felt like it never once was out of my grasp."
Newton was rocked with two hard hits by the Saints defense and even was given an independent evaluation for a possible concussion in the Carolina locker room after a goal-line hit by linebacker Michael Mauti. But, he never missed a snap.
"That just shows how gritty he is," Rivera said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw three touchdown passes and completed 24 of 42 passes for 282 yards, and Mark Ingram ran 9 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 5:21 left. But that just set up Newton's late-game heroics, his third game-winning drive in the fourth quarter this season.
Trailing 16-13 at the half, Carolina scored touchdowns on its first two possessions of the third quarter to push its lead to 27-16. Newton completed a pair of 13-yard scoring passes to wide receivers Ginn and Devin Funchess. On both completions, the Panthers victimized cornerback Brandon Browner, the NFL's most penalized player.
But the Saints refused to fold. Brees hit receiver Brandin Cooks for a 54-yard touchdown pass to cut the Carolina lead to 27-22, and Ingram converted the two-point try to draw the Saints within 27-24 late in the third quarter.
The Saints (4-8) regained the lead, 31-27, on Brees' 24-yard strike to receiver Brandon Coleman with 14:02 left. But Newton needed just four plays to move the Panthers 80 yards for a 34-31 lead with a 45-yard pass to Ginn, who somehow got lost in coverage behind linebacker Stephone Anthony.
Brees responded again, marching the Saints 88 yards in eight plays for a go-ahead touchdown, a 9-yard run by Ingram that made it 38-34 with 5:21 left.
The Panthers entered the game leading the NFL in turnover-takeaway margin, but they turned it over three times in the first half and trailed 16-13 at intermission. Despite turning it over three times, the Panthers gave up just one touchdown -- a 31-yard strip and fumble return by Anthony, who wrestled the ball from the grasp of running back Jonathan Stewart, to give the Saints a 14-0 lead,
The Saints failed to take advantage of two other Carolina miscues. Cornerback Delvin Breaux returned a pick to the Carolina 20, but Kai Forbath missed a 38-yard field goal in the first quarter.
"We're not where we need to be," Brees said. "We got three turnovers, but there are too many little things that we can't allow to happen to be the team we want to be."
The Panthers moved within 14-7 on Newton's 12-yard flip to fullback Mike Tolbert, and they made it 14-13 when Newton ran the option and flipped a pitch to Stewart, who scored from 5 yards out.
But kicker Graham Gano's potential game-tying PAT was blocked by Kevin Williams, and Anthony rumbled 82 yards for two points for the Saints -- the first time in NFL history that a PAT had been blocked and returned for a score. That gave the Saints a 16-13 lead at the half.
Saints coach Sean Payton was visibly upset by several calls in which the Panthers seemed to have 12 men on the field.
"I'm not going to get into the officiating, but it happened twice -- 12 on the field," Payton said. "They get that call right on Friday night (in high school games)."
NOTES: The Panthers have won 16 consecutive regular-season games. ... The Saints announced that former LB Jonathan Vilma, one of the keys to their victory in Super Bowl XLIV, had officially retired. Vilma played six seasons with the Saints and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010. ... QB Cam Newton took two hard hits in the first half but bounced up from both. The first came on a sack by Cam Jordan when his knees were twisted on the tackle, and the other was when LB Michael Mauti nailed him with a diving tackle at the Saints' 1-yard line.
Top Game Performances
Team Stats Summary
New Orleans will play their next game on the road against Tampa Bay. The Saints have a W/L % of .500 after a win and .250 after a loss.
Carolina will play their next game at home against Atlanta. The Panthers have a W/L % of 1.000 after a win and .000 after a loss.