New Orleans, LA – DeAngelo Williams ran for a Panthers-record 210 yards with a pair of scores, as Carolina wrapped up a solid finish to the season with a 44-38 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.
Mike Tolbert added 25 yards and three short touchdowns as part of a 273-yard rushing performance for the Panthers (7-9), who won their final four games and five of their last six, possibly saving coach Ron Rivera's job. Carolina improved upon last year's 6-10 mark in Rivera's first season.
Cam Newton battled through a leg injury in the fourth quarter and threw for 248 yards with an interception in the victory. The Panthers rebounded nicely after a 1-6 start, with their lone victory in that stretch coming in Week 2 against a Saints team that had its own problems throughout an up-and-down 2012.
"I'm proud of the fact that those guys showed up every day and worked, did the things we asked and did them very well," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "This is a good group of men and they deserved this."
New Orleans (7-9) had a chance to finish at .500 after a disastrous 0-4 start that followed numerous off-field issues, but instead wound up with a losing record for the first time since 2007.
Trouble for the Saints began in the spring with the announcement of the bounty scandal that featured the season-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton, who worked out a multi-year contract extension earlier this week.
A contract dispute in the summer with Drew Brees didn't help matters, although the star quarterback set an NFL record for most consecutive games with a TD pass and on Sunday reached 5,000 passing yards for the third time in his career while becoming the first player in league history with at least 40 TD passes in back-to-back years.
Brees threw for 396 yards with four scores and one interception on Sunday, while Jonathan Vilma -- a key figure in the NFL's bounty investigation -- returned an interception for a score. Vilma eventually won an appeal of his season-long suspension for his alleged role in the scandal.
The Saints opened a 24-13 lead early in the third quarter, but the porous defense allowed Carolina to score the next 28 points. New Orleans set an NFL mark for most yards allowed in a single season with 7,042, shattering the previous mark of 6,793 set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
"It's unacceptable what happened today," said Saints interim coach Joe Vitt. "It's disappointing. There's no way to sugarcoat it."
Williams, moments after officials negated a Saints defensive touchdown, scored on a 54-yard gallop to pull the Panthers within 24-20. Brees was picked off by Charles Godfrey late in the third and a Newton pass of 31 yards to Steve Smith set up Tolbert's 1-yard touchdown run, giving Carolina a 27-24 edge with 2 1/2 minutes left in the period.
Newton then directed an 80-yard drive early in the fourth that ended with Tolbert's third 1-yard TD run and a 69-yard punt return by Armanti Edwards was followed immediately by Williams' 12-yard scoring jaunt for a 41-24 cushion.
Brees tried to rally the Saints, throwing TD passes of nine yards to Marques Colston and 33 yards to Darren Sproles around a 42-yard Graham Gano field goal. The Sproles touchdown pulled New Orleans within six with 2:52 to play, but the Saints failed to recover the ensuing onsides kick.
Carolina, thanks to an 11-yard run from Williams and 10 more on three carries by Tolbert, chewed up the remaining time to complete a sweep of New Orleans for the first time since 2008.
The Panthers took their second possession 76 yards in 15 plays and settled for a 20-yard field goal from Gano, who then missed early in the second quarter from 54 yards away. Carolina, though, needed just three plays to go 82 yards for a touchdown midway through the second, as Williams keyed the short set with a 65-yard burst to the one before Tolbert scored on the next play for a 10-0 advantage.
New Orleans answered with a pair of touchdowns in a span of 43 seconds to move in front. Brees keyed a 76-yard drive with a 39-yard pass to Lance Moore and finished it with a 7-yard scoring toss to Colston on 4th-and-1. Two plays after the kickoff, Vilma sniffed out a screen pass and picked off Newton's errant throw, cruising into the end zone untouched from 18 yards away to make it 14-10.
The Panthers responded with a 31-yard field goal from Gano with 39 seconds left, but the Saints had time and Garrett Hartley drilled a 53-yard kick as time expired for a 17-13 halftime edge.
Brees engineered an 80-yard scoring drive to start the second half. A 51-yard circus catch by Moore on 3rd-and-12 kept it alive and Jimmy Graham hauled in a 19-yard TD pass to make it 24-13.
Williams eclipsed the previous Panthers record of 206 yards, set by Jonathan Stewart against the New York Giants on Dec. 27, 2009. Williams' previous best was 186 yards, set Dec. 8, 2008 against Tampa Bay ... Newton has 7,920 passing yards in his first two seasons, eclipsing Peyton Manning's previous NFL mark of 7,874 yards ... Brees joined Hall of Famer Dan Marino (1984 & '86) as the only quarterbacks with two seasons of at least 40 TD passes ... Vilma notched his 12th career interception and second INT return for a touchdown.