Panthers-Saints: Carolina Wins NFC South On Last-Second FIeld Goal

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Panthers-Saints: Carolina Wins NFC South On Last-Second FIeld Goal

The Carolina Panthers beat the New Orleans Saints, winning the NFC South and earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs (and subsequently a first-round bye followed by a home playoff game).

With just six seconds left on the clock, the Panthers were deep enough in Saints' territory to attempt a game-winning, 37-yard field goal. 

But tackle Jordan Gross, who is infamous for his numerous false-start penalties, jumped early for Carolina, and the Cats were set back five yards. 

This time Kasay was forced to come through from 42 yards, one yard further than his only miss of the day, 41. 

Kasay's kick was hooked a little, but it still split the uprights and won the game for the Panthers.  The final score was 33-31.

But the close final result was a poor indicator of how the game really played out.

The Panthers got out to a 23-10 halftime lead via a trio of John Kasay field goals (the Panthers just could not score a touchdown early in the game!) and a Dante Wesley special teams touchdown.  Wesley picked up the ball after it was stripped out of Saints return man Skyler Green's hands and took it 12 yards for a touchdown.

New Orleans' only touchdown of the first half was a 26-yard strike from quarterback Drew Brees to WR Marques Colston, who, in addition to his score, had nine receptions totalling 123 yards, with less than a minute left in the half.

After forcing the Saints to punt on their first possession of the second half, the Panthers worked the ball down the field and punched it in with rookie HB Jonathan Stewart.  It was Stewart's 10th touchdown, and it made he and starter DeAngelo Williams, who finished the day with 178 yards and averaging 7.12 yards per carry but surprisingly no touchdowns, just the fourth RB tandem in NFL history to both rush for 10 touchdowns or more in a season.  Stewart now has 10, Williams 18.

The Panthers simply dominated the first three quarters. 

But after Stewart's touchdown, the Saints went on an unbelievable scoring tear only a team led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback could be capable of.

New Orleans' first fourth-quarter drive started from their own 31, lasted 11 plays, and culminated in a seven-yard touchdown pass from QB Drew Brees—who finished 30-of-49 for 386 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception—to receiver Robert Meachem.  The Saints got set back a bit by a false start penalty, but they survived easily.

Score: 30-17, Panthers, 14:54 left in fourth quarter.

Following another Panthers punt, the Saints' second drive amassed 89 yards (including a 10-yard penalty against, presumably holding), lasted 12 plays, and was capped off by a nine-yard Brees pass to WR Lance Moore, who caught eight passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns.  15 penalty yards made New Orleans' task even harder.

Score: 30-24, Panthers, 5:38 left in fourth quarter.

The Saints' third drive of the final quarter originated at Carolina's 45 after Panthers punter Jason Baker shanked one, barely getting it to flutter 20 yards before it collapsed out of bounds.  It was easily Baker's worst punt of the year—the worst one that wasn't blocked, that is.  Saints QB Drew Brees, took full advantage of the good fortune, heading a quick, three-play drive that finished in another touchdown pass to Moore.

Score: 31-30, Saints, 3:16 left in fourth quarter.

Every Panthers fan's worst fear had happened.  Drew Brees, one of the few quarterbacks who could lead a comeback of this magnitude, had brought his team back from a 20-point deficit in about seven minutes of game time by tallying 21 straight points. 

To make matters worse, injuries to two starting offensive linemen, right tackle Jeff Otah and right guard Geoff Hangartner, forced head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson to play agonizingly conservatively at the wrong times (particularly on 3rd-and-longs, something Panthers fans are used to), and that helped the Saints' defense get some keys stops along the way.  As a result, the Panthers' offense had stalled since their first possession of the second half, which resulted in a touchdown. 

But the Panthers have been resilient all season long, and they were about to pull off one of their most heart-pounding comebacks of the year. 

The first play of the Panthers' last drive of the game was a 39-yard pass from field general Jake Delhomme to WR Steve Smith, who, although he didn't score, made several big plays to get Carolina into scoring position throughout the game as he reeled in five catches for 134 yards.  That put Carolina much closer to field goal position.  

A handful of DeAngelo Williams runs covering a combined 15 yards, an eight-yard pass to Muhsin Muhammad—who also caught a touchdown pass—and a false start penalty for five yards against LT Jordan Gross on the initial field goal attempt set up a 42-yarder for kicker Kasay, who drilled the kick to win the game—and the NFC South—for the Panthers.

But not only did Carolina win the NFC South for the first time since 2005, when the team advanced to the NFC Championship Game but got stomped by the Seahawks 34-14, they earned the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, which will allow them a first-round bye in the playoffs and a home playoff game in the divisional round against the higher-seeded opponent remaining from the wild card round.

Saints QB Drew Brees had a tremendous fourth quarter, throwing for 153 yards, but fell 15 yards shy of Dan Marino's nearly 25-year-old single season passing record of 5,084 yards.  He did, however, become only the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000-plus yards in a season.  The other, of course, is Marino.  Brees actually had a chance to break the record on the last play of the game, but his pass fell several yards shy of his intended receiver.

The Panthers, however, did make some history.  Starting RB DeAngelo Williams, who had 1,337 rushing yards entering the game, needed only 108 rushing yards to surpass the team record of 1,444 set by Stephen Davis in 2003-04.  His 178 yards not only gave him the record, it also tied Davis' single game rushing yards record—a mark Williams had already broken against the Bucs on Dec. 8.  Lastly, Williams broke Davis' team record for most 100-yard rushing games in a season with his eighth 100-yard rushing game. 

Williams also became the first Panther ever to rush for 1,500-plus yards in a season.

The only record Williams wasn't able to tie or break was Jim Brown's half-century-old record of seven rushing touchdowns of 30 yards or longer in a season.  Williams finished with six.

Panthers DE Julius Peppers has also quietly outdone his previous season-high in sacks, 13.0.  He has 14.5.  In addition, he made a pretty tackle for a loss on an off-tackle run.

The Panthers now start the road to the Super Bowl.  And, while this may not be saying much, Chris Collinsworth, of Football Night In America, Inside the NFL (okay, I'll cut you some slack if you've never heard of this show, as it's only available on a Showtime channel), and Madden NFL 09 fame, is convinced that this team is going to the Super Bowl.

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