NEW ORLEANS -- Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers displayed composure in the clutch. That's what unbeaten teams do.
Newton passed for five touchdowns, capped by a 15-yard scoring strike to Jerricho Cotchery with 1:05 to go, and the Panthers clinched the NFC South with a 41-38 victory over the Saints on Sunday.
"I expected us to win the football game," Newton said, adding he wasn't pleased by how tight the game got at the end against the reeling Saints (4-8), who've lost four straight. "We've got to find ways moving forward not to put ourselves in this position. This was a wakeup call for us. And moving forward, we know we can't just win games by us showing up."
Carolina, the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL, has the ninth 12-0 start in the Super Bowl era. The Panthers have won 16 straight regular-season games, a streak that began in the Superdome last season.
Newton, who was 28 of 41 for 331 yards, twice had to lead the Panthers back from fourth-quarter deficits.
"That is one of the things that we get out of this that we will certainly build on, that (Newton) was able to win a shootout and take a drive in the fourth quarter to give us a chance," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said after capturing his third successive division title. "It goes back to his whole development as a quarterback in this league. I am really proud of what he did and the confidence with which he played."
Newton was sacked once but hit numerous other times, including on his 10 rushes for 49 yards. Newton was ordered to undergo concussion testing during the third quarter, right after his 13-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr. capped a touchdown drive during which he took a heavy hit from linebacker Michael Mauti.
"I was fine. I was even teasing him," Newton said of his interview with a neurologist, adding that officials on the field also checked on him. "The referee did an unbelievable job with making sure I was all right. Numerous times he asked me to look him in his eye just to see if I was focused."
Drew Brees passed for 282 yards and three touchdowns. Saints linebacker Stephone Anthony returned a fumble 31 yards for a score, and also became the first NFL player to return a blocked extra-point kick for 2 points. The league made a rule change to allow such plays for the first time this season.
"There were a lot of good things, but still too many of the little things that get you beat," Brees said.
Carolina led 27-16 after Newton's 13-yard pass to Devin Funchess, but New Orleans rallied to take a 31-27 lead on Brees' 54-yard TD to Brandin Cooks and 24-yard scoring pass to Brandon Coleman.
The Panthers went back in front on Newton's 45-yard pass to Ginn. But New Orleans answered with Mark Ingram's 9-yard run with 5:21 left, forcing Newton to put together one more touchdown drive.
He narrowly pulled it off, finding tight end Greg Olsen for a first down as he rolled left on a fourth-and-4. Olsen had to fall to the field to make a, rolling fingertip grab of the underthrown pass, which was so close to hitting the turf that fans in the Superdome were roaring at replays as Saints coach Sean Payton asked for a review.
Olsen finished with nine catches for 129 yards.
New Orleans' defense produced three turnovers and a touchdown in the first half.
However, the Saints' offense was unable to convert cornerback Delvin Breaux's interception or Kenny Vaccaro's recovery of Olsen's fumble into points. One of those possessions ended in Kai Forbath's missed 38-yard field goal.
Anthony scored when he ripped the ball away from Jonathan Stewart as the running back tried to push through a pile of players. Carolina players seemed to think the play was over and watched as Anthony raced 31 yards for a 14-0 Saints lead.
"I even thought the play was over," Anthony said. "I didn't know whether I should keep running or not. I didn't hear a whistle, and I kind of waited, then I kept going."
Early in the second quarter, Carolina cut the lead in half on Mike Tolbert's 12-yard touchdown catch, set up by Newton's 30-yard bootleg on fourth-and-1 a couple plays earlier.
Stewart scored on a 5-yard run shortly before halftime, but Graham Gano's extra point kick was blocked by Kevin Williams and returned 82 yards by Anthony to give New Orleans a 16-13 lead.
Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press