Early, there was a possibility for Carolina to climb into it.
The New Orleans Saints' 42-10 victory over the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday wasn't a runaway from the jump. But one play really helped make it an out-of-hand affair for the Saints (13-3), who closed out the regular season with their most lopsided victory and entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the NFC.
All indications were that it wasn't going to be a prosperous day for Carolina's rookie quarterback Will Grier, who was making his second NFL start. New Orleans guaranteed it in the second quarter, when the defense chipped in one of its best plays of the game.
With the Saints leading 14-0, Thomas Morstead nailed one of his best punts – an unreturnable 57-yarder that landed out of bounds at the Panthers' 9 – to position the defense to make an impact. And make an impact, it did.
On first down from there, Grier took a shotgun snap and attempted a short right pass for Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, about five yards past the line of scrimmage. New Orleans linebacker A.J. Klein noticed the stare down by the rookie.
Klein broke on the pass as soon as it was released, cut in front of Olsen, intercepted it and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown, to give New Orleans a 21-0 lead with 12:04 left in the first half.
Officially, the rout was on.
The Saints produced two more turnovers later – a fumble recovery by defensive tackle Malcom Brown and an end zone interception by cornerback Janoris Jenkins – but Klein's theft, against his former team, was the one that helped extinguish any comeback thoughts by Carolina.
It was the first touchdown of Klein's career, against the team for which he played the first four of his seven NFL seasons.