There were a lot of firsts for the Carolina Panthers in their 35-27 victory against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Ron Rivera and Cam Newton were triumphant over the Saints for the first time since the pair started a new era in Charlotte last season. Newton also rushed for a career-high 71 yards on 13 carries. Charles Godfrey scored a touchdown for the first time in his five-year NFL career.
But most importantly, this version of the Carolina Panthers, the same team who coughed up eight second-half leads in 2011, finally closed out a good team in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers, who overcame an early 13-7 lead, seized control of the game in the second quarter to take a 21-13 lead into halftime. After extending that lead to 28-13 in the third quarter, the Saints used a Mark Ingram 1-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 28-20 with 12:57 to play.
At this point, every Panthers fan in Bank of America Stadium began holding their breath. They had seen this act before.
In Week 5 last season, the Panthers had a 27-23 lead late against the Saints, but watched it evaporate as the offense failed to shut the door on their NFC South rival down the stretch. Drew Brees ultimately engineered a 13-play, 89-yard drive in the fourth quarter, capped off a six-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas with less than a minute left. The Panthers lost 30-27.
This time, history would not repeat itself.
On the Panthers’ first offensive play following the Ingram score, Cam Newton hit a wide-open Steve Smith for a 66-yard catch and run. Five plays later, Newton scampered into the end zone from five yards out to push the lead back to 15.
Then, the defense took over.
The Panthers were able to force a crucial turnover on downs on the very next Saints possession. Pierre Thomas took the ball all the way to the opposing 30-yard line behind a 48-yard run, but Brees missed tight end Jimmy Graham on third and fourth downs to give possession back to Carolina. Although the Saints were able to cut the lead to eight for a second time, the Panthers shut the door for good when linebacker Jon Beason intercepted Brees with 31 seconds left.
The reemergence of the running game was an extremely encouraging sign for a Panthers team that could only muster 10 yards on the ground against the Buccaneers in Week 1. With Newton (71 yards), DeAngelo Willams (69 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (51 yards) leading the way, Ron Rivera’s team piled up 219 yards rushing against a porous New Orleans defense.
Charles Godfrey and Josh Norman led the way on defense with 11 and 8 tackles, respectively.
While this was a defining victory for a young Carolina team, there is no time for celebrating. The Panthers will have just three days to get ready for their next game – a Thursday night matchup against Eli Manning and the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium.
Meanwhile, the Saints still remain with more questions than answers – particularly on defense – as they start 0-2 for the first time since 2007. Aaron Cromer’s team will try to get back on track at home next Sunday when they welcome another winless team, the Kansas City Chiefs, to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a 1 p.m. matchup.
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