NEW ORLEANS — At least Cam Newton looks fine.
Unfortunately for the star quarterback and the rest of the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers, their 2016 season is unraveling as they head into their bye week at 1-5 and alone in last place in the NFC South.
“It’s not like we wanted to start the season, but we have a bunch of guys that play hard,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We’re going to work our butts off this week and the rest of the season to try to get some wins.”
Three of Carolina’s losses have come down to field goals in the final seconds. The Panthers missed a potential game-winner in Week 1 at Denver, and now division rivals have hit winning field goals against them in the final seconds the past two weeks.
On Sunday, it was New Orleans’ Wil Lutz connecting from 52 yards with 11 seconds left in a 41-38 Saints’ victory. The previous Monday night, it was Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo hitting from 38 yards as time expired.
Perhaps less encouraging for Carolina is the fact that neither New Orleans (2-3) nor Tampa Bay (2-3) have winning records.
Four of the Saints’ five games this season have come down to the last possession. And after an 0-3 start, New Orleans has won two straight — although they might be in trouble without quarterback Drew Brees, whose 465 yards and four touchdowns were just enough to overcome a slew of defensive gaffes, not to mention a missed field goal.
Still, Brees brimmed with optimism, as he tends to do.
“We’re ascending,” the Saints QB said. “These are defining wins. These are wins you can draw from as the season goes along and really get a lot of strength from.”
Some things we learned from the Panthers-Saints shootout in the Big Easy:
Newton completed 27 of 47 passes for 322 yards and two TDs against New Orleans. He also ran around the right end for a crucial, late fourth-quarter score and added a pass for a 2-point conversion that tied it at 38 with 2:58 to go. One area in which he and the offense struggled was third down; they converted just three of 11. But that might have had something to do with Newton’s apparent reluctance in running into too many hits coming off his concussion.
“I do what I’m asked to do,” Newton said when asked why he kept scrambles to an apparent minimum.
After becoming the only quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 400 yards passing in a regular-season game 15 times — moving ahead of Peyton Manning’s 14 — Brees is averaging 346.8 yards passing this season to go with 14 TDs. Brees has said he still feels as if he’s in his prime at age 37. His elite numbers back him up.
“He is one of the best that has ever played,” said tight end Coby Fleener, who caught a 50-yard TD from Brees. “It’s not like it’s something you see every few weeks. It’s every single week.”
The Panthers’ and Saints’ defenses each managed one sack and one interception, but those were the few highlights of an otherwise tough day for both struggling units. The Saints were called for three pass interference penalties in or near the end zone, all leading to Panthers TDs. Saints defenders were concerned enough that they balked when coaches told them they could take Monday off.
“I want the whole defense to meet tomorrow with the coaches and we’re going to go through this whole tape,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said.
“We won the game but I don’t have a good taste in my mouth. I think there are some things out there that I know we didn’t do that we need to execute — little things that are going to cost us in the future.”
Saints coach Sean Payton has maintained faith in rookie kicker Wil Lutz even as he has missed a few field goals. He missed a 53-yarder against Carolina, but Payton banked on Lutz in the final seconds and it paid off.
“He’s got the moxie. He’s got all those things you look for in a good kicker,” Payton said of the former Georgia State kicker. “Aside from the physical traits — leg strength — he’s got that mental toughness.”
Defensive backs are having a hard time keeping up with Brandin Cooks, whose 87-yard touchdown catch and run against Carolina wasn’t even his longest receptions this season. He had a 98-yard TD in Week 1. His seven catches for 173 yards Sunday gives him a team-leading 428 yards through five games.