In 2014, the Carolina Panthers began their current 16-game winning streak by amassing 497 yards in a 41-10 blowout of the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. On Sunday, the Panthers put up identical numbers, but the Saints put up a fight, going toe-to-toe with the NFL's only unbeaten team before falling 41-38.Whether that counts as progress depends on your perspective.The Saints (4-8) scored their first defensive touchdown in three years and achieved the first extra-point return for a score in NFL history but fell short of giving the Panthers their first blemish on their record.
The Panthers (12-0) officially clinched their third consecutive NFC South championship before the game and then overcame a sluggish, turnover-filled first half to wear down the Saints defense.Incredibly, when the Panthers trounced the Saints 41-10 on Dec. 8, 2014, they improved to 4-8-1 and still seemed to be on the periphery of the NFC South race.The Saints, who were effectively if not officially eliminated from the playoff race on Sunday, came closer than anyone expected Sunday.The Panthers scored the winning touchdown with 1:05 left when quarterback Cam Newton hit Jerricho Cotchery in the back of the end zone. Cotchery was guarded by Christopher Owens, signed just a few weeks ago, who was playing because of an injury to Delvin Breaux, who left with a pulled hamstring in the first half."It hurt a lot," Payton said of the loss of Breaux.With no timeouts left, the Saints scrambled to get in position for a late field-goal attempt but couldn't get past midfield. "It's a disappointing loss and it's frustrating," Payton said. In its second game under new coordinator Dennis Allen, the Saints' defense showed flashes of progress interspersed with familiar failures.In the first quarter, Breaux ripped the ball away from Carolina receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for his second career interception and first in the Superdome. But the Saints got nothing in return: The subsequent drive stalled and Kai Forbath missed a 38-yard field goal.Later, rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony stripped Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart and returned the fumble 31 yards for a touchdown. Virtually everyone on the field except Anthony seemed to assume the play was dead, but Anthony kept running to the end zone, and a replay review confirmed the touchdown.It was the Saints' first defensive touchdown since 2012; the team had none under recently fired coordinator Rob Ryan.The Saints' third interception of the first half came when Brian Dixon forced a fumble that was recovered by Kenny Vaccaro.Turnovers are usually a good barometer, and Payton said it's even more pronounced in the Carolina series. The Panthers entered the game leading the NFL with a +16 turnover margin."As long as I've been here, the turnover stat against Carolina has been a big deal," Payton said.Before Sunday, the Saints were 27-3 since 2006 when forcing three or more turnovers.Anthony was at the center of another unusual play in the first half that wasn't a turnover but still resulted in a three-point swing.Saints defensive tackle Kevin Williams blocked an extra-point attempt by Graham Gano. Anthony got a nice bounce and returned the ball 82 yards for two points.It was the first time such a play has happened in NFL history and it gave the Saints a 16-14 lead going into halftime.The lead didn't last long, as the Panthers started the third quarter with a long touchdown drive.Newton found Ginn alone in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown that left Saints safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Brandon Browner discussing how Ginn found such a large opening in the defense.Browner appeared to bark at Allen on the sidelines, but Payton dismissed a question about their dispute, saying "It's a competitive game. Dennis and (Browner) have a great relationship."The Panthers beat Browner again a few moments later when Newton hit Devin Funchess for a 13-yard touchdown pass.Browner was also called for three of the 11 penalties for 104 yards assessed against the Saints.Payton indicated his displeasure with the officiating by emphasizing at the beginning of his post-game press conference that he wouldn't discuss officiating. Later, he complained of two occasions on which officials failed to see 12 men on the field."They're getting that right on Friday nights," he said.Down 27-16 only 10 minutes into the second half, the Saints fought back.Brees threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks (followed by a two-point conversion) in the third quarter and then a 24-yarder to Coleman early in the fourth.The Panthers took the lead back quickly on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Ginn. But the Saints' defense held strong after a Brees interception on the next drive gave Carolina the ball midfield.After the Saints forced a quick punt, New Orleans drove 88 yards in four minutes to take a 38-34 lead on a 9-yard Mark Ingram touchdown run.But there was enough time on the clock for the Panthers to mount their last scoring drive and preserve their undefeated record.A year ago, after Carolina's 41-10 blowout, the Saints and Panthers appeared to be moving rapidly in opposite directions. The Saints have gone 6-10 while the Panthers have cruised to 16 wins over the same span.