The Carolina Panthers shellacked the New Orleans Saints 41-10 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday, winning so convincingly it was hard to believe they hadn't won for two months. It was one of the most astounding and inexplicable games I have ever covered in 20 years following the Panthers, who entered the game 3-8-1 and on a six-game, 63-day losing streak. It also means Carolina will be only a half-game back in the NFC South -- trailing New Orleans and Atlanta -- IF Atlanta loses to Green Bay Monday night.
So let's try to explain it. Here are the top 5 reasons the Panthers won big:
1. Quarterback Cam Newton played unbelievably well. Newton had one of those games that makes you remember why he can be so spectacular, throwing for three TDs and running for another while committing zero turnovers. Look at him in the picture above -- literally laughing at the Saints defense as he runs for another first down (photo by Observer's Jeff Siner). Newton toyed with the Saints' defense, which had held him to a career-low 10 completions on Oct.30th in the Saints' 28-10 win in Charlotte. Just when I wondered if the "Cam 2013" model was still available in Sunday's newspaper, here he came.
2. Defensive secondary. The release of Antoine Cason seemed to be an addition by subtraction, as the extremely young Panther secondary played great football against Drew Brees. And linebacker Thomas Davis was everywhere. It also helped that Brees' receivers had to have dropped a half-dozen passes -- tight end Jimmy Graham in particular was terrible.
3. The fight. Never underestimate a big scuffle in terms of what can do -- either positively or negatively -- for a team. In this case, the fight after Newton scored on a one-yard dive and tried to do his "Superman" thing seemed to energize the Panthers.
4. No monster mistakes. There was nothing for Carolina like the two blocked punts that ruined last week. Instead, the Panther defense was the one causing the turnovers (the Saints lost the ball twice in their first three plays). Much of this was due to offensive line play, which gave Newton all sorts of time as he didn't throw an interception for the first time in nine games.
5. Game-planning. Give the coaches some credit on this one, too. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula repeatedly threw the ball on second-and-1 and third-and-1 and ran Newton on all sorts of designed runs. The defensive game plan was just as -- if not more -- solid. And the special teams, while allowing a couple of 30- and 32-yard punt returns, had no huge errors. By the time Jonathan Stewart sprinted 69 yards for a TD on the Panthers' first play of the second half, amazingly enough, the game was all but over.