NEW ORLEANS — Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are collecting some nice memories in New Orleans.
Newton passed for five touchdowns, capped by a 15-yard scoring strike to Jerricho Cotchery with 1:05 to go, and the unbeaten Carolina Panthers clinched the NFC South with a 41-38 victory over the Saints on Sunday.
Carolina, the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL, has the ninth 12-0 start in the Super Bowl era. The Panthers have won 16 straight regular-season games, a streak that began in the Superdome last season.
Newton, who was 28 of 41 for 331 yards, twice had to lead the Panthers back from fourth-quarter deficits as the Saints (4-8) tried desperately to avoid a four-game losing streak. Jonathan Stewart had a 5-yard scoring run on a pitch from Newton.
Drew Brees passed for 282 yards and three touchdowns. Saints linebacker Stephone Anthony returned a fumble 31 yards for a score, and also became the first NFL player to return a blocked extra-point kick for 2 points in NFL history.
Carolina led 27-16 after Newton’s 13-yard pass to Devin Funchess, but New Orleans rallied to take a 31-27 lead on Brees’ 54-yard TD to Brandin Cooks and 24-yard scoring pass to Brandon Coleman.
The Panthers went back in front on Newton’s fourth scoring pass, a 45-yarder to Ted Ginn Jr. But New Orleans answered with Mark Ingram’s 9-yard run with 5:21 left, forcing Newton to put together one more touchdown drive. He narrowly pulled it off, finding tight end Greg Olsen for a first down as he rolled left on a fourth-and-4. Olsen had to fall to the ground to make a fingertip grab of the underthrown pass, which was so close to hitting the ground that fans in the Superdome were roaring at replays as Saints coach Sean Payton asked for a review.
Olsen finished with nine catches for 129 yards. Ginn had five receptions for 80 yards and two TDs.
Cooks had six catches for 104 yards for the Saints. Both Brees and Newton were intercepted once.
New Orleans’ defense, which demonstrated moderate improvement a week ago in Dennis Allen’s first game as coordinator, produced three turnovers and a touchdown in the first half.
However, the Saints’ offense was unable to convert cornerback Delvin Breaux’s interception or Kenny Vaccaro’s recovery of Olsen’s fumble into points. One of those possessions ended in Kai Forbath’s missed 38-yard field goal and the other with a punt.
Anthony scored when he ripped the ball away from Stewart as the running back tried to push through a pile of players. Anthony stepped over the pile with the ball while maintaining his balance. Carolina players near him seemed to think the play was over and just watched as Anthony raced 31 yards to the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
That didn’t last long.
Early in the second quarter, Carolina cut the lead in half on Mike Tolbert’s 12-yard touchdown catch, set up by Newton’s 30-yard bootleg on fourth-and-1 a couple plays earlier.
Stewart scored his TD shortly before halftime, but Graham Gano’s extra point kick was blocked by Kevin Williams and returned 82 yards by Anthony to give New Orleans a 16-13 lead. Anthony’s return was the first in NFL history by a defensive player for 2 points on a failed extra-point kick, allowed by a new rule this year.