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Panthers can't keep pace, fall to Saints 45-17

By Brett Martel

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 1 2012 5:05 p.m. MST

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) passes as New Orleans Saints defensive back Jonathon Amaya, right, rushes during the second quarter of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. The Saints won 45-17.

Bill Feig, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Cam Newton tried to scramble away from pressure coming from his right but couldn't elude blitzing rookie linebacker Martez Wilson, who flattened him from behind.

The quarterback who celebrates touchdowns by mimicking the way Clark Kent transforms into Superman found himself gingerly getting up and trotting in pain to the sideline, where he sat with a towel over his head.

Instead, it was Drew Brees who resembled the comic book superhero as the record-setting Saints pounded the Panthers 45-17 on Sunday and rolled into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak.

"I have to work both mentally and physically to be a better quarterback," Newton said. "It was embarrassing how we ended that game."

After a strong start that kept Carolina (6-10) competitive through one half, Newton finished 15 of 25 for 158 yards, one touchdown and one interception, well below the standard he'd set during an otherwise spectacular rookie season.

The Panthers had come in having won four of five and wanted to go into the offseason on a high. They, instead, were reminded of just how big a gap there is between them and the Saints (13-3), who set a slew of NFL and club records during the game.

Brees passed for 389 yards and five touchdowns, and the NFL records set by the Saints included offensive yards with 7,474, team yards passing with 5,347 and first downs with 416.

Brees, who was 28 of 35, finished with a record 468 completions this season, breaking Peyton Manning's 2010 mark of 450. He finished the season completing 71.6 percent of his passes, breaking his own 2009 NFL record 70.6 completion percentage.

"Every facet of our offense is clicking right now, but yet you're constantly finding ways to advance it," Brees said. "We've raised the bar for ourselves. We have a high level of expectations, and we're just trying to meet that level."

Jimmy Graham had 97 yards receiving to finish with 1,310, exceeding Kellen Winslow's 1980 record of 1,290 for a tight end. But New England's Rob Gronkowski finished with 1,327 yards, establishing a new mark.

Darren Sproles had 40 yards rushing, 29 yards receiving and 99 yards on kickoff and punt returns to finish with season with an NFL record 2,969 combined yards, easily breaking the previous mark of 2,690, set by Derrick Mason with Tennessee in 2000.

Carolina (6-10) kept up for much of the first half but wilted over the final two quarters while the Saints set a franchise single-game record with 617 yards of total offense.

"We caught a football team that is on a roll right now," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "That's a playoff-caliber football team that did that to us."

Marques Colston caught Brees' first two scoring passes, making a spectacular, spinning catch with arms outstretched on the first one from 15 yards out.

Colston's second touchdown went for 42 yards, and he finished with seven catches for 145 yards.

Brees also connected with Graham on a 19-yard scoring strike, and added TD passes of 9 yards to Sproles and 1 yard to fullback Jed Collins.

Graham's TD catch was his 11th, matching a club record also reached by Joe Horn in 2004 and Colston in 2007.

Brees surpassed 300 yards passing for the seventh straight game and 13th time this season, both NFL records he already held and simply extended.

The records come one week after Brees passed Dan Marino's 27-yard-old single-season record of 5,084 yards passing.

Brees finished the season with 5,476 yards to go with 46 touchdown passes, fourth most in NFL history. First is New England's Tom Brady with 50 in 2007.

With six touchdowns against Carolina, the Saints finished with 66 this season, breaking the 2009 record of 64. New Orleans' 547 points smashed the 2009 club record of 510 and was the third highest total in NFL history behind the 2007 Patriots (589) and the 1998 Minnesota Vikings (556).

Both defenses struggled for much a competitive first half, and each team might have scored more if not for Patrick Robinson's interception of Newton in the Saints' end zone and R.J. Stanford's interception of Brees deep in Panthers territory.

Chris Ivory gave the Saints a 7-0 lead on the opening series of the game with his 35-yard touchdown run.

The Panthers hit right back with Newton's 12-yard timing pass to Steve Smith to tie it. Later, Jonathan Stewart's 29-yard scoring run pulled the Panthers into a tie at 17 with 1:18 to go in the second quarter.

That was too much time for Brees, who connected on his long TD pass to Colston with 7 seconds on the clock to make it 24-17 at halftime.

NOTES: Carolina officials said after the game that CB Darius Butler had a broken arm, but they did not specify which one, while TE Greg Olsen had a concussion. ... Colston set a club record with his fifth 1,000-yard season with the Saints, moving ahead of Joe Horn, who had four. ... Saints P Thomas Morstead set a record for punting average in a season at 47.9 yards. ... The Saints went 8-0 at home for the first time in franchise history.

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