Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers proved they can still summon the type of competent, passionate and feisty football associated with teams pushing for postseason berths.
After six straight mistake-filled losses, Carolina could not afford to wait any longer than its trip to the Big Easy to make piling up yards and points look — well — easy again.
Newton passed for three touchdowns, incited a scuffle after soaring over the pile for another score and let running back Jonathan Stewart do the rest in a 41-10 rout of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
"When you execute like that, it's fun to watch. And when you don't, it's hard to watch," said Newton, who was an efficient 21-of-33 for 226 yards with no interceptions and no sacks.
The victory pulled Carolina (4-8-1) closer to NFC South Division leader Atlanta (5-7), which plays Monday night at Green Bay.
Newton also scrambled for 83 yards and Stewart rushed for 155 yards on 20 carries, highlighted by his 69-yard run that made it 31-3 early in the third quarter.
"When the offensive line is playing as well as they did today, and our running backs are running like they were, and our guys are catching the ball like they were, it's hard to lose," Newton said.
For Saints coach Sean Payton, it was hard to watch as New Orleans (5-8) lost its fourth straight home game to fall a half-game behind the Falcons.
"Obviously, that's embarrassing — how we played, how we coached. You pick an area, you pick a phase and it was awful," Payton said. "It couldn't have started any worse and couldn't have finished any worse."
The Panthers scored an NFL-low 30 first-quarter points during their first 12 games combined. Against New Orleans, Carolina scored on its opening series for only the second time on Kelvin Benjamin's 9-yard touchdown catch. The Panthers wound up scoring 17 points before 9 minutes had elapsed, thanks in no small part to Saints' turnovers.
Mark Ingram's fumble on the New Orleans 25 led to a field goal. Bene Benwikere's interception of Drew Brees led to Newton's rushing TD, which in turn led to a brief melee behind the end zone.
Newton was jawing with defensive end Cam Jordan, then linebacker Curtis Lofton shoved Newton just as the quarterback broke into his "Superman" celebration. The scrum that ensued burst through a closed gate behind the goal post and spilled into a tunnel.
Tight end Brandon Williams was ejected for punching Jordan.
Newton said the scuffle resulted from "a lot of testosterone on that field at one time."
Lofton, who was penalized but not ejected, said he didn't regret his shove and was not going to stand for what he viewed as Newton was taunting Jordan.
Some more things to know about Carolina's demolition of the Saints:
NEWTON'S TURNAROUND: During Carolina's six-game skid, Newton threw nine interceptions and just six touchdown passes, and was sacked 25 times. Against the Saints, he had his fourth career game with at least 200 yards passing, multiple touchdown passes, 80-plus yards rushing and a touchdown run. Only two other players have done that multiple times. Michael Vick and Russell Wilson each have done it twice.
STAGNANT SAINTS: Saints quarterback Drew Brees' 235 yards passing and completion rate of 59.2 percent were both season lows. The Saints were also held under 100 yards rushing for only the third time this season.
BIG GAINS: Carolina gained 271 yards rushing and its 497 total yards were a season high, as were its 41 points. Newton's other touchdown passes went for 16 yards to tight end Greg Olsen and 26 yards to running back Fozzy Whittaker.
"We have got to keep this formula going. This is who we are and this is what we are good at," Olsen said. "We had good rhythm and a good mix of pass and run."
DISHEARTENED DEFENSE: The Saints entered the game second-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed, only to see their average yards allowed ruse from 390.5 to 398.7 — still slightly better than Atlanta's average of 403.2.
PLAYOFF PICTURE: Despite losing four of five games, the Saints will remain tied for first place in the NFC South if Atlanta losses to the Packers on Monday night. Carolina, meanwhile, would sit a half game behind both the Saints and Falcons. If the Falcons upset Green Bay, they'll take a one-game lead, but still must play in New Orleans on Dec. 21.
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