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Top 20 Games of 2015: No. 9 -- Panthers at Saints

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Final score: Panthers 41, Saints 38

To put it simply, Panthers-Saints Week 13 was a ridiculously entertaining football game full of highlight-reel plays.

Er, how about we just call it what it was: fun. This game packed in highlight plays like Mike Tolbert packs hamburgers. Let's break it down:

» Drew Brees' absolutely perfect strike to Ben Watson in the end zone to kick off the scoring.

» Cam Newton running a bootleg keeper for 30 yards, on fourth down no less.

» Tolbert rolling, taking a 12-yard pass and lumbering into the end zone to make it 14-7, Saints.

» Jonathan Stewart side-stepping/leaping over a tackler on a 22-yard run, then paying it off on a well-executed option play with Newton ...

» ... only to have the Saints block the extra point! Stephone Anthony scooped and scored and the crowd reached a Rage Against the Machine decibel level. That play counted as a safety (the first ever on the new PAT rule), extending the Saints' lead to 16-13.

We're not done.

» How about Newton's rocket ball right ... on ... the ... money to Devin Funchess on a deep slant to put Carolina up 27-16?

» Ah, whatever. Brees. Cooks. 54 yards on a home run ball. Now we're making gumbo. 27-23

» Another Brees touchdown strike (this one to Brandon Coleman), a two-point conversion (thanks, Mark Ingram), and the home team was up 31-27.

» That was until Newton fired a 46-yard heave off his back foot for Ted Ginn, Jr. to glide under on ... 34-31, road team.

Had enough yet?

Not to invoke John Madden here, but, hey, wait a minute! Weren't these Panthers supposed to run the ball and play defense behind Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and the boys? Where did this Dan Marino 1984-esque blitzkrieg come from?

All this scoring was smack dab, Cam's dab, in the middle of a five-game run where the Panthers came one touchdown shy of putting up 200 points! By season's end, Carolina -- the team that supposedly would struggle after stud wideout Kelvin Benjamin went down -- led the league in scoring.

Yet, it was the last touchdown in our ninth top game of 2015 that was oh so important.

By virtue of driving his team 88 yards to paydirt, Brees put the Saints up 38-34 with 5:27 to play. Unwittingly, the Saints franchise quarterback forced his Panthers counterpart into earning NFL MVP honors.

Newton responded, calmly marching the Carolina offense 75 yards in 11 plays. He distributed the ball evenly, hitting five different receivers on this drive alone. When all hung in the balance on a fourth-and-4 from the New Orleans 46-yard line, Newton escaped pressure, then found his most reliable receiver for 16 yards. Olsen's sliding catch carried a high degree of difficulty and scrutiny, but the play was upheld by the replay booth. Three plays later, Jerricho Cotchery was clutching a Cam bullet in the end zone for the lead.

After watching helplessly as Newton orchestrated the go-ahead drive in front of a house full of Saints faithful and a national television audience, Brees was unable to bring his club back this time. The Panthers finally did lean on that defense, and 41-38 was all she wrote.

Ron Rivera's group would be crowned NFC South champs for the third straight year. Although the slumping Falcons helped in that regard by losing earlier in the afternoon, Carolina made its own luck rather than wait for it, beating Brees and the Saints at their own game -- a home-cooked track meet. The only thing that got smoked was the home team's defensive backs by the eventual league MVP.

All of it was one heckuva fun watch.

Weirdness

Saints rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony was involved in not one, but two weird plays. The blocked extra point return was actually his second scoring play of the game.

With the Saints up 7-0 in the first quarter, Jonathan Stewart lugged the rock on an innocent second-and-9 run. It appeared from the network's main camera angle that the powerful tailback got stonewalled for a two-yard gain. Except, on the right side of the TV screen, something frenetic was going down. Anthony had ripped the ball from Stewart's arms and was chugging for the goal line. By the time the director on the broadcast caught up, Anthony was jumping in the end zone like he just beat Dark Tower. The play got reviewed while many of the Panthers scratched their heads.

Final verdict: touchdown, putting the underdogs up 14-zip.

Free Agency/Draft Needs Rear Their Ugly Head...

Panthers-Saints only served to magnify New Orleans' desperate want for defense. Whenever they needed a big stop, they couldn't get it in this contest, much less all season. The Saints allowed 476 points, most in the NFL, including 41 in this matchup alone. Moreover, there was a time not too long ago when a 14-point lead at the Superdome spelled game over for the visitors.

Secondary is the first unit to overhaul. New Orleans gave up an NFL record 45 touchdown passes to opponents, including five from Cam Newton in this game.

Historical Symmetry

The Saints darn near handed the Panthers their first loss of the season in our ninth top game of 2015, for the second time. Don't sleep on recent history, i.e. the Week 3 matchup between these two franchises. The Saints were forced to play backup Luke McCown not only for a better cellular network, but in a real game with real implications. He fared well (31-38, 310 yards), and darn near pulled off the upset, until Josh Norman made perhaps the top defensive play of the 2015 season in the end zone.

Carolina won that game 27-22, and Norman's athletic interception bears a second viewing. We're here to please.

Why This Game is No. 9

Divisional games will always rest on the NFL's top shelf of games from a given season. This axiom was reinforced in this instant classic between the Panthers and Saints.

Coming into 2015, Carolina had won the NFC South four times to New Orleans' three, but the latter could boast a Super Bowl title and two NFC Championship Game appearances since the division formed in 2002, something no other team in the NFC South could claim. The Saints have been the standard in this division during the Payton-Brees era. Yet, in Week 13, the Panthers officially put that idea to bed by clinching the division for the third consecutive season, winning on the Saints field, in a Saints' style shootout.

Visit NFL Game Center for more highlights and analysis from Panthers at Saints, Week 13.

-- by Elliot Harrison. Follow Elliot on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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