It was not the way the Carolina Panthers envisioned ending their season as they were soundly beaten by the NFC South division champion New Orleans Saints, 33-7.
The Saints got on the scoreboard first on their initial drive of the game going 42 yards on eight plays, resulting in an 18-yard wide-open touchdown pass from Drew Brees to tight end Jared Cook.
Carolina got off to a rough start offensively going three and out on back-to-back drives totaling -8 yards. Teddy Bridgewater had pressure up in his face early and often and didn't settle in until the end of the first quarter - a drive that tied the game up at 7-7.
Bridgewater went to his most reliable receiver, Curtis Samuel, early and often to try and get the offense moving. Samuel jumpstarted the Panthers' first scoring drive with two catches resulting in 33 yards, which moved the ball to the New Orleans eight-yard line. On 1st and goal, Bridgewater took off up the middle to try and scramble in for a touchdown but was wrestled down to the ground at the one and came up limping from the hit. One play later, undrafted rookie running back Rodney Smith punched it into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
Momentum slowly started shifting toward the Panthers after the Carolina defense came up with a three and out following the scoring drive. Safety Tre Boston sacked Brees for a loss of seven on 3rd down, forcing a New Orleans punt.
Carolina slowly worked their way back up the field, pushing the ball into the red zone and looking to take a lead but Bridgewater was intercepted in the end zone by Malcolm Jenkins and returned it for 48 yards. New Orleans capitalized on the good field position by taking the lead back just four plays after the turnover. Running back Ty Montgomery busted one up the sideline for a 36-yard gain, helping set up an 8-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders.
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Bridgewater found Curtis Samuel down the middle of the field for a 33-yard gain. Carolina faced two 4th and 1 situations on the drive but could not move the sticks on the 2nd attempt. Rodney Smith was stuffed short of the line to gain, giving the ball back to New Orleans.
The Saints ate up the final three minutes of the first half and tacked on a 33-yard field goal from Will Lutz as time expired, leading Carolina 16-7 at the break.
Right out of the gate to start the 2nd half, Drew Brees took a shot down the field and connected with Marquez Calloway pushing the ball to midfield. Super utility man Taysom Hill picked up 15 yards on the ground on two of the following three plays, setting up another field goal attempt for Lutz to extend the lead to 19-7.
Teddy Bridgewater took a shot deep down the middle of the field to DJ Moore in double coverage looking to get a quick answer and somehow, Moore came down with the ball. Just one play after the incredible catch by Moore, Bridgewater threw his 2nd interception in the end zone on the day on a severely underthrown ball.
Head coach Matt Rhule decided to replace Bridgewater with backup P.J. Walker toward the end of the third quarter and on just his 2nd pass attempt of the evening, was picked off by Marshon Lattimore. The interception thrown by Walker set up a short field for the Saints offense which allowed Taysom Hill to go back to work on the ground. He picked up 15 yards on 2nd and 4, getting the ball inside the five, and then strolled into the end zone for a touchdown.
New Orleans tacked onto their lead once again on their next possession on an 8-play, 57-yard drive capped off with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Austin Carr who slipped right up the middle of the defense uncovered for the final score of the game.
The Panthers end their season with a 5-11 record and finish 3rd in the NFC South in year one under head coach Matt Rhule.
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