By Michael Brennan
You may need to wait a few more days to hear the fate of Panthers coach, Ron Rivera, but for now you know that the team finished their season on a good note. The Panthers went in to New Orleans and defeated the lowly Saints on Sunday. For Carolina fans, that was the team that was supposed to show up on the first game of the season in Tampa Bay.
The Panthers (7-9) were engaged in heated divisional contest against New Orleans (7-9) but managed a 44-38 victory behind a career day from DeAngelo Williams. Williams has been on the chopping block after the last two seasons but showed his value to Panthers owner, Jerry Richardson, in his explosive day. Williams carried the ball only 21 times but amassed 210 yards on the ground with two touchdowns. It was the first time since 2009 that Williams rushed for over 100 yards and the first time in his career that he compiled more than 200.
Drew Brees, despite missing out on the Pro Bowl, played like an all-pro. Brees completed 29 of his 43 passes for 396 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Brees unfortunately was not able to get much support on the ground and relied on Jimmy Graham and Lance Moore to elevate the offense.
The Carolina defense allowed only 63 rushing yards and continued their late-season development. Despite being riddled with injuries, the starting 11 for Carolina has been instrumental in their winning streak to finish out the season. Luke Kuechly has solidified his spot as the team’s starting middle linebacker. Kuechly has lead not just the Panthers, but the entire NFL in tackles in 2012, something that has helped introduce him as a favorite in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race.
In a game that featured many penalties, the Panthers benefitted the most. There was a great deal of friction between the two teams and in the fourth quarter unnecessary penalties loomed large.
Cam Newton was injured after being taken to the ground in the fourth quarter and in stepped back-up quarterback, Derek Anderson. Anderson had a limited role as Newton was back on the field shortly but played a large part in the Panthers big win. Anderson completed his one and only pass for 12 yards but it came on a big third-down conversion in New Orleans territory.
Newton was kept relatively quiet but helped his team finish the season strong. Newton completed 16 of 33 passes for 248 yards and an interception. He added an additional 34 yards on the ground on seven carries.
The Panthers may be watching the postseason from home but they have a lot to be pleased with at their seasons end. The emergence of a defense that is still relatively young is encouraging especially as an NFL draft approaches that is loaded with defensive talent. Cam Newton is finding the maturity that others have scrutinized him for earlier in the season. It remains to be seen whether or not Ron Rivera will continue to be around but it is likely that his teams’ performance has been enough for him to stay in Carolina.
Finding the correct GM and making important roster moves is going to be next big step for the Panthers. There are several receivers that are going to be entering free agency that Carolina might want to explore as an option opposite of Steve Smith. While household names like Jennings, Welker and Bowe may be tough for the Panthers financially it absolutely presents the issue that Carolina needs more support in the air. As for the backfield, it might be beneficial for Carolina to only have one ball-carrier. Splitting reps between two backs that each are getting paid nearly the same amount as Arian Foster isn’t going to continue to cut it in Carolina.