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What we learned: Injury-marred Panthers pull off win

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Nothing has come easy for the 2016 Carolina Panthers. Even in victory, they feel a long way from last season's Super Bowl.

Thursday night's 23-20 result over the New Orleans Saints was a much-needed victory to move the Panthers to 4-6 on the season. But it felt hollow because of all that went wrong late in the game.

Star linebacker Luke Kuechly was carted off the field in tears before being evaluated for a concussion. Kuechly missed three games last season with a concussion. Center Ryan Kalil left the game in the second half after aggravating his shoulder injury. This offensive line, which has had problems all season, appears to fall apart when Kalil is out. That was certainly the case Thursday night when he left.

The team also watched defensive end Mario Addison, who added two more sacks to his team-leading total, leave early with a foot injury.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton told reporters afterward it was like "grim reaper" made a visit to the game.

The Panthers, who blew a 17-point lead at home against Kansas City last week, were holding on for dear life by the end of this one. But Newton did just enough to keep Carolina's faint playoff hopes alive.

Here's what we learned from the Panthers' win:

1. Give Newton credit for delivering a great throw when he absolutely needed it. Facing a third-and-10 with 2:39 left, Newton stood tall against pressure and delivered a laser to Kelvin Benjamin into zone coverage. The Saints curiously did not blitz on the play. It was Carolina's only first down of the fourth quarter after three consecutive three-and-outs.

2. This is another heartbreaking loss for New Orleans. Twice in the last four days, the Saints have outgained an opponent but lost because of special teams miscues and turnovers. The Panthers converted two Drew Brees turnovers into 10 points and another blocked kick off the Saints into a touchdown before halftime. Carolina's offense was erratic otherwise.

3. The football gods don't seem to be fans of the Saints this year. One week after their game turned on a blocked extra-point attempt, the game was essentially won late in the first half on a blocked field-goal attempt.

The sequence of events was complicated, with Kuechly's return for a touchdown ultimately called back by penalty. But a ridiculously good throw and catch by Newton to Ted Ginn for 40 yards ultimately changed a likely 13-6 halftime scoreline to a 20-3 margin. That 10-point swing looms large in the NFC South standings with the Saints now 4-6.

Perhaps the blocked kick is more on Saints kicker Wil Lutz than any bad mojo. He has had three kicks blocked and two more deflected this season.

4. The Panthers' defense has mostly played to its 2015 Super Bowl form since the team returned from their bye week, going 3-1 over that span. But the offense is still missing its running game, relying on occasional plays of brilliance from Newton to get on the scoreboard. With road tests in Oakland and Seattle up next, the Panthers will need to play a lot better. They might be missing some of their best players on those road trips.

5. Saints coach Sean Payton took a methodical approach in this comeback attempt and it nearly worked. The Saints kicked a field goal down 20 points early in the fourth quarter rather than go for it on fourth-and-long in the red zone. New Orleans also didn't go no-huddle as it drove for a late touchdown, chewing up more than five minutes of clock on a 13-play drive. Ultimately, the Saints ran out of time.

6. Panthers cornerback James Bradberry deserves credit for a great play to prevent a Willie Snead touchdown with just under four minutes left. While the Saints scored a minute later, that extra minute taken off the clock could have been the difference in the game.

7. There is a temptation to say the Saints "outplayed" Carolina and looked like the better team. This is certainly the best the Saints' defense has looked in years, keyed by Cameron Jordan, Dannell Ellerbe and Nick Fairley.

But the Saints continue to make too many unforced errors. Brees has dug big holes in consecutive weeks with turnovers. They fielded a kickoff at the 1-yard line that went out of bounds. Coby Fleener fumbled a ball that negated a first down in the red zone and receiver Brandon Coleman dropped a key third-and-long in the fourth quarter.

Perhaps it's time to accept that these two compelling, flawed teams just aren't playoff material. They both have big uphill battles to get there now.

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