NFL Week 17 Recap and Analysis: Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints

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It was a win-win weekend in the Big Easy.  New Orleans got word that suspended coach Sean Payton will return to the Saints sideline next season after inking a contract extension. The visiting Carolina Panthers earned a 44-38 victory that may keep their coach Ron Rivera employed.  With both teams eliminated from playoff contention each fan base got what they wanted.

It was a typical Saints game. Drew Brees played great, and the rest of the team offered little. Brees torched Carolina for 396 passing yards and four touchdowns. The defense allowed 530 yards divided evenly between the Panther rushing attack and passing game. Carolina's DeAngelo Williams raced for 210 yards and two scores. The entire Saints backfield managed 63 yards rushing.

Both teams finished the season 7-9 and each has reason for optimism entering 2013. Payton returns for New Orleans. In six seasons as the Saints head coach he has averaged more than 10 wins a year and captured the ultimate prize during the 2009 season. For a second straight campaign Carolina ended the year strong. After starting last season 2-8 the Panthers rallied to win four of their final six games. This year after beginning 2-8 Carolina won five of six to close the season.

The victory also marked the first Panther win in a game decided by seven points or less since week three of last season. One of the loudest criticisms of Rivera is his 2-12 record in such games. Carolina has won four times in games with an eight point margin under Rivera.

New Orleans shattered the 1981 Baltimore Colts league record for yards allowed in a season. Carolina's 530 brought the Saints total to 7,042 yards given up. By allowing more than 440 yards a game the Saints yielded 40 more yards a contest than the next worst defensive team in the league. The New Orleans defense was so bad that the Saints failed to reach .500 despite scoring the third most points in the NFL. The top two teams, Denver and New England, won a combined 25 games and both teams have bye's in the first round of the playoffs.

The seven victories are the most for Carolina in a year since 2009. Panther quarterback Cam Newton finished the season in the top half of the NFL in QB Rating and passing yards. Over the final seven weeks of the season Newton average nearly 300 total yards per game while accounting for 14 touchdowns and throwing only two interceptions.

In an otherwise meaningless game, Saints fans left smiling with Brees and Payton in tow for next season while Carolina finished up strong and showed what could be to come in 2013.