Williams was especially explosive, carrying the ball 21 times for 210 times and two scores. Tolbert relished the closer role as the 5-foot-9, 245-pound fullback rumbled in for 1-yard touchdowns in the second, third and fourth quarters.
Cam Newton finished with pedestrian numbers, completing 16-of-33 passes for 248 yards and one interception. He added 34 yards on the ground.
The second-year quarterback also provided quite a scare when it looked like he suffered a left knee injury following a hit by Saints defensive end Turk McBride in the fourth quarter. Backup Derek Anderson took over for five plays, completing one pass for 12 yards before Newton re-entered the game.
After starting the season 2-8, the Panthers notched victories in five of their final six games to finish 2012 with a 7-9 record. While the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons ran away with the NFC South, Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay all finished with a 7-9 mark. After factoring in several tie breakers, the Panthers actually earned second place in the division, despite getting swept by the Buccaneers.
The Saints, who finished with their worst record in five years, are surely ready to put the bounty scandal behind them and start fresh with Sean Payton back at the helm in 2013.
In a bit of consolation for New Orleans, quarterback Drew Brees passed for 396 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first player to not only eclipse 5,000 passing yards three times, but also throw 40 touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
- After surrendering 530 yards of offense to the Panthers, the Saints broke the record for most yards given up in a season. The record was held for more than two decades by the Baltimore Colts, who conceded 6,793 yards during the 1981 season. New Orleans' season total ballooned to 7,042 after Sunday's loss, shattering the old mark by more than 200 yards.
- With 248 passing yards on Sunday, Cam Newton now holds the record for most yards through the air in his first two seasons. Newton's 7,920 yards eclipsed the previous record of 7,874 set by Peyton Manning in 1998-99.
- Steve Smith caught three passes for 73 yards, finishing the 2012 season with 73 grabs for 1,174 yards and four touchdowns. The 33-year-old wideout now has seven seasons with 1,000-plus yards receiving.
- Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly registered 13 tackles on Sunday, raising his total to 164 for the season – the most in the NFL.
- Defensive end Charles Johnson recorded a pair of sacks to finish with a career-high 12.5 for the season.
- The Panthers were able to dominate the point of attack using their eighth different starting combination on the offensive line this season.
- Safety Charles Godfrey tallied his second interception of the season on Sunday. Both picks came against Drew Brees.
Rivera's Fate Yet to Be Determined
The reverse in fortune has been remarkable for Rivera, who seemed like a sure bet to get canned less than a month ago. It was December 2nd, and the Panthers had just dropped to 3-9 with a loss to the lowly Kansas City Chiefs. With the 11-1 Falcons on deck, it looked like the team was about to hit rock bottom.
As we all know, that's not what happened.
Carolina dominated Atlanta in the first of four consecutive convincing victories to end the season, making a pretty compelling case for Rivera to be retained for at least one more year.
Is the strong finish enough for the Panthers' second-year head coach?
Only Jerry Richardson knows the answer.
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