The Carolina Panthers defeated the New Orleans Saints 44-38 in the regular season finale Sunday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The loss puts the Saints final record for the 2012 season at 7-9, 4-4 at home and 3-3 in NFC South play. The Panthers finished the season at 7-9 as well.
"This game is not what this team is about," said Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers Joe Vitt after the game. "Very disappointing, very disappointing. There is no way to sugarcoat this."
QB Drew Brees completed 29 of 43 attempts for 396 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Brees finished the season with 5,177 yards, marking it the third time in his career that he surpassed the 5,000-yard mark. There have been six 5,000 yard seasons in NFL history and Brees has three of them.
RB Mark Ingram led the Saints in rushing with 39 yards on 10 carries.
WR Lance Moore hauled in four receptions for a game-high 121 yards. Moore finished the season with a career-high 1,041 yards, marking his first 1,000-yard season.
TE Jimmy Graham had a game-high nine receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown.
WR Marques Colston pulled in five catches for 52 yards and two scores. He is now tied with former Saints WR Eric Martin for the team record for receptions with 532.
LB Jonathan Vilma led the Saints defense with eight total tackles (four solo) and had an interception which he returned for an 18-yard touchdown.
The Panthers won the coin toss and chose to receive.
The Panthers struck first after both teams were forced to punt on their opening possessions.
QB Cam Newton led a 15-play, 76 yard, drive that took Carolina all the way down to the New Orleans two-yard line. The Saints defense held on in the redzone, forcing a field goal. K Graham Gano booted the 20-yard try through the uprights and gave the Panthers an early 3-0 lead in the first quarter.
The Panthers were able to add to their lead with a quick drive in the second quarter. Following a Saints punt, Newton completed a 16-yard pass to WR Brandon LaFell and RB DeAngelo Williams was able to break through the middle and rush for a 65-yard gain before being chased down at the New Orleans one-yard line by S Roman Harper.
RB Mike Tolbert took the ball into the endzone for the Panthers on the next play and Gano gave Carolina a 10-0 lead.
The Saints were able to answer on their next possession though as Brees was able to make some key completions. After two carries by Ingram picked up 21 yards, Brees found Moore for a deep 39-yard completion that moved the black and gold deep into Carolina territory. Brees finished the drive with three consecutive completions including a fourth down pass to Colston for a seven-yard touchdown. K Garret Hartley added the extra point to bring the game within three points in the second quarter.
Then, on the second play of the next drive, Newton was intercepted by Vilma. Vilma took the interception 18 yards into the endzone for a Saints touchdown. Hartley added on one more and gave the Saints the team's first lead of the day, 14-10, before the two-minute warning.
The Panthers were able to move down the field on two big plays that gave Gano a chance at another field goal before the halftime break. Gano made a 31-yard kick but the Panthers left too much time on the clock.
Brees was able to complete passes of more than 10 yards to Moore, TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles to pick up quick first downs. The precision by Brees gave Hartley one final chance for points before halftime and Hartley put a 53-yard field goal through the uprights to increase the Saints lead to 17-13 at halftime.
The Saints began the second half with the football and wasted no time in adding to their lead. Brees completed a 51-yard strike to Moore on the third play of the drive and wasn't stopped the rest of the way. Brees then found Graham for a 19-yard touchdown to give the Saints a two-score advantage. Hartley added the extra point to increase the lead to 24-13.
The long pass to Moore put the receiver over the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career. The touchdown connection to Graham put Brees over 5,000 yards for his third time, the sixth time in NFL history.
The Panthers were able to answer though in the third quarter. Following two completions by Newton, Williams was able to break off another long run, this time for 54 yards and a touchdown. Gano added the PAT to bring the score to 24-20.
After the teams traded punts, Carolina was able to force a turnover for the first time. S Charles Godfrey intercepted a pass from Brees intended for Moore. Three plays later Tolbert was able to carry the football one yard for a Panthers touchdown. Gano made the extra point to give Carolina a three point advantage, 27-24, at the end of the third quarter.
The Panthers were able to add to their lead early in the fourth quarter as they went 80 yards down the field on just nine plays. Once near the goal line, Tolbert was able to push through for his third one-yard touchdown of the game. Gano increased the lead to 34-24 with ten minutes remaining in regulation.
The Saints went three and out on the next drive. The Panthers rushing attack continued their strong performance when Deangelo Williams ran for a 12-yard touchdown to extend the Panthers lead to 41-24.
Brees and the Saints offense responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped off by a nine-yard touchdown catch by Colston, his second of the day, putting the score at 41-31.
On the following drive, the Panthers drove down to the New Orleans 24-yard line where Gano booted his third field goal on the day to push the Panthers lead to 44-31.
The Saints were able to cut the lead to a one score deficit (44-38) when Brees connected with Sproles for a 33-yard touchdown with 2:55 left in the game.
The Saints failed to recover on a onside kickoff attempt by P Thomas Morstead, ending the team's chance at a comeback.