Four Downs: Panthers revive playoff hopes with rout of Saints
The Carolina Panthers entered their Sunday game at New Orleans with a seven-game losing streak and seemingly no hope of making the playoffs -- even in the bad NFC South.
That's why their 41-10 throttling of the Saints came as a big surprise.
Here are four observations from Caroina's decisive rout:
1. The Panthers' offensive explosion was thorough ... and unexpected
There's really no denying int: The Panthers' offense has been rather bad this season -- averaging only 19 points per game entering Sunday (ranked 27th in the NFL).
That ranking will surely improve this week, on the heels of Carolina (4-8-1) exploding for 41 points against New Orleans (5-8). And from the Saints' perspective it could have been worse ... if the Panthers (24 first downs) hadn't let go of the proverbial gas pedal in the fourth quarter.
And yet, Carolina's 497 total yards were still the third-most in franchise history.
The Panthers scored 17 points in the first quarter, thanks to 10 points off New Orleans turnovers. Putting that into perspective: The Panthers, who produced 17 points in the opening 15 minutes against the Saints, had scored only 30 first-quarter points from Weeks 1-13 -- combined.
The Panthers also scored three touchdowns in the first half. Conversely, heading into Sunday, Carolina had tallied only four first-half TDs with Cam Newton at quarterback.
2. Carolina's defense certainly held their ground on this day
Newton (309 total yards, four TDs vs. New Orleans) and the offense will command the lion's share of attention, but the defense was great on this day, as well.
In fact, one could argue the defense set the tone for Carolina's blowout victory. After all, they held the Saints to a season-low 310 yards.
Leading 7-0 early on, the Panthers forced and recovered a Mark Ingram fumble at the Saints' 25. Three plays later, Carolina kicked a field goal to go up 10-0.
The Panthers defense was just warming up to a day of frenzied feats.
For the Saints' ensuing possession, Panthers defensive back Ben Benwikere made an outstanding play to intercept Drew Brees pass the Carolina 40. Six plays later, the QB Newton dove head-over-heels into the end zone for a touchdown, boosting his team's lead to 17-0.
Nobody knew it at the time, but the game was over because the Carolina's defense took charge.
Brees had just 55 yards passing in the first half -- his lowest 30-minute tally since 2006. As a team, New Orleans had just 84 yards total in the opening half.
Also, the Saints' 38-point deficit (third quarter) was their largest since 2003.
The Saints' only touchdown came in garbage time, a Benjamin Watson 7-yard scoring reception, with his team down 41-3.
3. The running game picked the perfect time to re-emerge
The Carolina rushers -- among the NFL's least successful ground-gainers in the first two months -- have found their stride on back-to-back weeks. This time, however, that running success was more of a group effort.
Against the Vikings last week, tailback Jonathan Stewart was the lone bright spot for a dismal Panthers offense, running better than he had all season. Against the Saints, everybody who touched the ball seemed to have a good day on the ground.
Carolina rushed for 271 yards, the third-most in team history.
Even though Stewart had 155 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, it really was Newton that kept New Orleans off balance with his legs.
Newton ran 12 times for 83 yards and one touchdown, while frustrating the Saints defenders all day. On that scoring run, a mini-brawl broke out in the end zone, leading to the ejection of Carolina tight end Brandon Williams.
Newton had his two longest runs of the season against the Saints, including a season-long of 21 yards.
Stewart's big numbers were aided by Carolina's first offensive play of the second half, taking a read-option handoff and bolting untouched for a 69-yard touchdown. Of equal importance, Stewart ran hard for the second straight week.
4. The Panthers are amazingly alive for the NFC South title
Somehow, some way, the Panthers still have a fighting chance to make the playoffs -- and with a losing record.
The best Carolina can do is finish 7-8-1, but in order to do so, it must win the next two weeks at home (Cleveland, Tampa Bay) and finish the campaign with a road victory against Atlanta.
With the Sunday win, the Panthers trail the Saints by only 1/2-game. New Orleans has road outings against Chicago and Tampa, as well as a home showdown with the first-place Falcons (Week 16).
The way the Saints are playing right now, losers of four straight at home, it wouldn't be surprising to see them go 1-2 down the stretch.
If that were the case, and assuming Carolina can win at least twice more, it still needs help from others against the Falcons, who have a rather difficult schedule.
Atlanta (5-7) will likely fall to Green Bay on the road Monday night. The Falcons then host the Pittsburgh Steelers -- a team for fighting for their playoff lives, as well -- next Sunday. After that comes the aforementioned divisional games with the Saints (road) and Panthers (home).
Put it all together, and it's conceivable the season finale between the Panthers and Falcons could decide the NFC South champion.
Follow Brett Jensen on Twitter at @Brett_Jensen.