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Brees, Saints set records, beat Panthers, 45-17

By Brett Martel

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 2 2012 3:55 a.m. MST

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) spikes the ball over the goal post after scoring on a touchdown as Carolina Panthers free safety Sherrod Martin (23) and outside linebacker James Anderson (50) walk away during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. Graham surpassed the single season receiving yards by a tight end on the play. The previous record of 1,290 yards was set by Hall of Famer  Kellen Winslow of the San Diego Chargers in the 1980 season.

Bill Haber, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — After Drew Brees capped a record-setting season by shredding yet another defense, the Saints' star quarterback was conflicted.

As a student of the game, he wanted to appreciate the history-making regular season New Orleans had just concluded. Yet there simply wasn't much time to spend on flattery while a playoff game with Detroit loomed less than a week away.

"The real season starts now," Brees said. "We're rolling. We want to keep it rolling, but it's a quick turnaround. There's not time to sit and enjoy anything."

Brees passed for 389 yards and five touchdowns, and the 2011 Saints offense went into the books as one of the best the NFL has ever seen while blowing out the Carolina Panthers 45-17 on Sunday.

The NFL single-season records set by the Saints (13-3), who head into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak, 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.

In terms of playoff seeding, New Orleans gained nothing with the victory, finishing with the third seed because San Francisco (13-3), which had a better conference record, held onto the second seed by winning at St. Louis. That result locked the Saints into a first-round home date with the Lions (10-6) on Saturday night.

Still, the Saints were less concerned with seeding than they were by memories of limping into the playoffs with a loss in their regular-season finale a year ago before being bounced by underdog Seattle in the first round.

Coach Sean Payton and his players decided the risk of injury did not outweigh the opportunity to build on the momentum they had established in a string of impressive performances since November.

Brees alluded to the fact that several teams in recent years — the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2007 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers — did not require rest to win Super Bowls.

"It doesn't matter how you got there. It's how are you playing now and what direction are you headed?" Brees said. "I feel like we're playing our best football right now. This is where we wanted to be."

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 the season with an NFL record 2,696 combined yards, breaking the previous mark of 2,690, set by Derrick Mason with Tennessee in 2000.

Carolina (6-10), which had won four of five, 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.

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

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.

Brees surpassed 300 yards passing for the seventh straight game and 13th time this season, building on NFL records he already owned.

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