Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance against the Saints.
B- QUARTERBACK : It wasn’t Cam Newton’s best game, but the third-year quarterback delivered with the game on the line. Newton, who was missing high and was sacked four times, completed three passes on the winning drive. He started it with a laser to Ted Ginn Jr., and ended it with a touch pass to Domenik Hixon in the end zone.
B- RUNNING BACKS : DeAngelo Williams made a great read on his 43-yard touchdown run, following the block of pulling left guard Travelle Wharton and then cutting back and sprinting into the end zone. Williams and fullback Mike Tolbert didn’t gain much else in the wet conditions, but they held on to the ball.
B RECEIVERS : The Panthers’ passing attack looked lost at times after Steve Smith left with a knee injury in the first quarter. Brandon LaFell caught only one pass for 13 yards, but Ginn and Hixon, the third and fourth receivers, came up big on the final drive. Tight end Greg Olsen caught four passes for 35 yards, and called for an audible on the final drive when he told Newton he could get open against safety Roman Harper.
B OFFENSIVE LINE : Newton was sacked four times, but the line was stout on the final drive. Newton needed good protection to complete the deep in route to Ginn, and he got it. Newton stood in the pocket for several seconds before firing downfield to Ginn. The line also did a good job avoiding penalties and mental mistakes in tough conditions.
A DEFENSIVE LINE : Defensive end Greg Hardy was missing in action in the Week 14 loss at New Orleans. Not so Sunday. Hardy feasted on rookie left tackle Terron Armstead, making his first start. Hardy finished with three of the six sacks on Drew Brees, for minus-27 yards. Hardy had four other hits on Brees. Defensive tackle Colin Cole left in the first half with a calf injury and did not return.
A LINEBACKERS : If middle linebacker Luke Kuechly weren’t a shoo-in for the Pro Bowl before, he should be now. Kuechly’s 24 tackles were the most in the NFL since Jets linebacker David Harris had 24 against Washington in 2007. Kuechly also intercepted Brees in the rain during the third quarter. Thomas Davis’ interception changed the momentum in the first half.
A DEFENSIVE BACKS : The No-Name Secondary left an impression on Brees, who went out of his way to mention them after the game. The cornerbacks were much more physical at the line of scrimmage than in the Week 14 loss, and the corners and safeties were effective in the blitz package. The coverage forced Brees to hold the ball longer than he wanted and take coverage sacks.
B+ SPECIAL TEAMS : The Panthers got caught flat-footed by the Saints’ onsides kick in the second quarter. But they looked ready for the fake field goal attempt, with free safety Mike Mitchell blanketed on tight end Jimmy Graham. Brad Nortman averaged 50.8 yards a punt, and put two inside the 5. Graham Gano hit a 40-yard field goal as the rain started to fall.
B COACHING : Ron Rivera went away from his Riverboat tendencies and trusted his defense in opting to punt with 2:04 left in the game. It paid off when the defense forced a quick three-and-out and Newton drove the Panthers 65 yards for the game-winning score. Sean McDermott’s decision to be more aggressive against Brees was critical. Joseph Person