The Carolina Panthers hoped they would wrap up a playoff spot in Week 16, now they have leadership atop the NFC South to boot. A struggling Cam Newton came up when it counted to give the Panthers a 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Steve Smith was injured early in the game and the Panthers' passing offense struggled. Newton had passed for just over 100 yards until a last-minute drive showed how much the third-year quarterback has developed. He orchestrated a near-perfect drive that found Domenik Hixon in the end zone to seal a close victory.
A change in weather was one catalyst in the Panthers' win. Drew Brees is known for his Jekyll and Hyde play away from home, and it rang true with the Saints quarterback throwing two early interceptions and looking uncomfortable in the pocket. Clouds blew away, and quickly the offense became more reliable. He found tight end Jimmy Graham on a series of deep passes before an easy five-yard score that was almost enough.
Terron Armstead suffered a baptism by fire. The rookie left tackle was tasked with stopping defensive end Greg Hardy, and it went about how you would expect. He allowed three sacks, with Brees being sacked a season-high six times.
New Orleans used some second-quarter trickery to provide an early spark. A long drive that ended in a field goal was quickly followed by a surprise onside kick that caught Carolina off guard and regained possession. The Saints managed a long drive that included an impressive run by Mark Ingram, but couldn't fully capitalize -- walking away with another field goal.
The Panthers got their breakout shortly after. A Thomas Davis interception was quickly followed by the game's only touchdown when running back DeAngelo Williams found the seam up the middle and scored on a 43-yard run. This was the biggest pop for the offense on Sunday, until the final game-defining drive.
Fantasy studs and duds
Graham had an excellent day for the Saints, finishing with 73 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Steve Smith left in the first quarter due to a knee injury. The Panthers receiver did not return.
Saints rookie Kenny Vaccaro sustained a bad ankle injury and left in an air cast. He did not return.
Did they cover?
The Carolina Panthers were 3.5-point favorites, according to OddsShark. Their four-point win means they covered.
12/29: Tampa Bay Buccaneersvs.
12/29: Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons