Offensive outburst propels Panthers to 44-38 victory over Saints

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 31, 2012 

— If this was the final game for Ron Rivera and DeAngelo Williams with the Panthers, both went out with a bang.

After a game that meant nothing in terms of the playoff picture but perhaps everything for Rivera, the second-year coach came to the podium Sunday at the Superdome with red-rimmed eyes under his frameless glasses.

Rivera had watched his team erase an 11-point, third-quarter deficit behind Williams’ record-setting rushing day to beat New Orleans 44-38 and end the season on a four-game winning streak.

It’s the Panthers’ longest win streak since they reeled off four in a row in 2008, the last time they made the playoffs. Carolina (7-9) won five of its last six games to finish in second place in the NFC South, a game better than Rivera’s first season.

Rivera will meet with owner Jerry Richardson this week to evaluate the season and Rivera’s fate.

Asked if he believes he’ll be back, Rivera said: “Well, I want to be back. We’ll see.”

When he fired general manager Marty Hurney in October, Richardson told Rivera he wanted to see the team trend upward. The Panthers went 6-4 after Hurney’s firing, although only two of those wins came against teams with winning records.

Team officials said they expected no decision Monday on Rivera, who won for just the second time in 14 games decided by a touchdown or less.

“To go out winning is great. But at the end of the day, you’re still not going to the playoffs,” wideout Steve Smith said. “So, baby steps. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, so we’re crawling right now.”

What had been mostly a season-long crawl for Williams turned into a sprint against a Saints defense that surrendered more yards this season than any team in NFL history.

Williams set a single-game franchise record with 210 rushing yards, breaking the mark of 206 held by his friend Jonathan Stewart, who missed his fifth consecutive game with an ankle injury. Williams averaged 10 yards a carry on 21 attempts, and had gains of 65, 54 and 22 yards.

Williams’ future also has been in question. A few teams called the Panthers at the trade deadline inquiring about Williams, who has three years left on the $43million contract he signed in 2011 – a year before the Panthers re-signed Stewart to a lucrative deal, as well.

“I honestly don’t know. That’s a Big Cat question,” Williams said when asked about his future. “We don’t know what kind of GM he’s bringing. We don’t know the status of the coaching staff. We don’t know any of that. I can tell you this much, our coaching staff has made a strong statement these last four weeks on finishing strong and being productive on the offensive side and defensive side.”

A year after surrendering the most yards (617) in team history in a Week 17 loss at New Orleans, the Panthers returned the favor with one of the franchise’s top offensive performances.

The Panthers rolled up 530 total net yards, second behind their 543-yard effort in a loss to Chicago last season. Carolina’s 273 rushing yards and 28 first downs also ranked No. 2 on the team’s list of single-game records.

All five of the Panthers’ touchdowns came on the ground: Williams’ runs of 54 and 12 yards, and three 1-yard scores by fullback Mike Tolbert.

“The way DeAngelo ran the ball was the story of the day. You rush for 200 yards in the NFL, that’s not an easy feat,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “So I think you have to give credit to those O-linemen. They fought all year, fought through some injuries and different combinations.”

Olsen was involved in the game’s biggest play – a fumble after a 4-yard reception in the third quarter. Officials ruled Olsen was down by contact, prompting a challenge by Saints interim coach Joe Vitt.

The replay official determined Olsen had fumbled, but could not determine whether cornerback Johnny Patrick’s foot was inbounds when he recovered the ball. Instead of New Orleans (7-9) taking over inside the Carolina 25 with a 24-13 lead, the Panthers retained possession.

On the next play, quarterback Cam Newton hit Louis Murphy for 34 yards to convert a third-and-18. On the following snap, Williams ripped off a 54-yard touchdown – the first of 28 consecutive points for the Panthers after Olsen’s fumble.

“The referee didn’t get the same angle as we did on the Jumbotron in his review and couldn’t see it, so it is what it is,” Vitt said. “Every call is not going to go your way. When it comes to third-and-(18), you can’t get beat over the top of your head.”

Newton passed for 248 yards, breaking Peyton Manning’s record for passing yards by a quarterback in his first two seasons (7,920). Newton threw an interception that linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned for a touchdown, but drew praise for returning to the game after missing part of a fourth-quarter series with an ankle injury.

In the visiting locker room, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott gave a game ball to Rivera, who got choked up talking about how the team never gave up.

“We were down (24-13) and easily could’ve just said, ‘You know what, last game of the season, what the heck am I playing for? I just want to pack it up and just play safe,’ ” Newton said. “No, we didn’t do that. A lot of guys grinded it out and finished the game.”

“They showed up and played,” Rivera said. “They’ve done that all year, and that’s all I’ve asked.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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