17 - 45 Final
  for this game

Brees, Saints finish strong, dominate Panthers

Jan 2, 2012 - 3:27 AM New Orleans, LA (Sports Network) - Drew Brees threw for 389 yards to add to his single-season passing record, and the Saints used a dominant second half to earn a 45-17 victory over the Panthers on Sunday.

However, despite all that, New Orleans wasn't able to secure a first-round bye for the playoffs. San Francisco held on to beat St. Louis on Sunday, 34-27, giving the 49ers the NFC's No. 2 seed.

The NFC South-champion Saints (13-3) will be the conference's third seed and host the Lions in the first round next Saturday at 8 p.m. (et). They will enter the postseason on an eight-game winning streak, and will also have their record-setting quarterback in top form.

Brees, who passed Hall of Famer Dan Marino on Monday for the NFL record, finished the regular season with 5,476 yards. He threw for five touchdowns Sunday, the third time this season he has done that, and was intercepted once while completing 28-of-35 passes.

He also finished with the NFL's single-season records for completions (468) and completion percentage (71.2).

Brees' records were among many set by the Saints this season. They recorded single-season marks for offensive yards (7,474) and first downs (417), while Darren Sproles set the NFL's single-season mark for all-purpose yards Sunday. He accumulated 168 and finished the season with 2,696, just passing Derrick Mason's mark of 2,690.

"Obviously, last Monday night was a special moment," Brees said. "Today you just looked around and said, 'I don't know if any of us will ever be part of something like this again.'"

Cam Newton closed out a strong rookie season by throwing for 158 yards and a touchdown on 15-of-25 completions, with one interception. He had already set the record for passing yards by a rookie in helping Carolina (6-10) to a four- win improvement from last season.

"It was embarrassing how we finished that game; offensively, defensively, special teams, the whole nine yards. It was unacceptable," Newton said.

The Saints were ahead by just a touchdown at halftime, but completely dominated the second half to secure the victory. After forcing the Panthers to punt on the opening possession, New Orleans moved 61 yards in six plays to score. Brees hit Jimmy Graham with a 19-yard touchdown pass over the middle to made it a 31-17 contest.

Another Carolina punt preceded another Saints score -- this time a one-yard pass to fullback Jed Collins.

Brees found Sproles for a nine-yard throw early in the fourth quarter, his final pass of the contest. With the Saints ahead by 28, Chase Daniel replaced Brees for the final two series.

While New Orleans' offense was extremely successful in the second half, so was its defense. It limited Carolina to four punts and a fumble, a contrast from the first quarter, which the Panthers and Saints turned into a showcase of skills.

On the opening possession of the game, Chris Ivory took a handoff up the middle, quickly shifted to his left and sprinted to the end zone for a 35-yard score.

But the Panthers answered with an 11-play drive during which they didn't face a third down. Newton ended it with a perfectly placed touchdown throw to Steve Smith, who caught the 12-yard pass over his shoulder at the right edge of the end zone.

However, New Orleans re-gained the lead on its next touch. Marques Colston needed to stretch across his body while he was in the air to catch Brees' pass to the back of the end zone. The 15-yard grab made it a 14-7 game with 2:50 left in the quarter.

The second quarter provided more back-and-forth. Newton and Brees were both intercepted before Carolina's Olindo Mare and New Orleans' John Kasay connected on field goals. Mare made a 41-yard attempt, while Kasay kicked a 43-yarder with 2:42 left.

Both teams also managed to score in the final minutes of the half. With 1:18 left, Jonathan Stewart scored on a 29-yard run after sprinting through a hole in the middle of the line and racing through the Saints' secondary before it had a chance to pursue him.

But not to be outdone, New Orleans reached the end zone with seven seconds left. Brees pump-faked before airing out a long throw for Colston, who adjusted his steps near the goal line to make the 42-yard catch and send the Saints into the break with a 24-17 lead.

Game Notes

New Orleans gained 617 yards...Mason set the all-purpose yardage record in 2000 with the Titans...Colston finished with seven catches for 145 yards, while Graham had eight receptions for 97 yards. Ivory ended with 127 yards rushing...Stewart led Carolina with 79 yards.