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Saints rip Panthers, enter playoffs on eight-game winning streak

NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees set a merciless tone with relentless, aggressive, pinpoint passing and the New Orleans Saints shrugged off injury risks, barreling into the postseason with an all-out effort.

"Every facet of our offense is clicking right now, but yet you're constantly finding ways to advance it," Brees said. "We've raised the bar for ourselves. We have a high level of expectations, and we're just trying to meet that level."

Brees passed for 389 yards and five touchdowns, and the Saints set a slew of NFL and club records in a 45-17 blowout of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

The NFL single-season records set by the Saints (13-3), who head into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak, included offensive yards with 7,474, team yards passing with 5,347 and first downs with 416.

Brees, who was 28 of 35, finished with a record 468 completions this season, breaking Peyton Manning's 2010 mark of 450. He finished the season completing 71.6 percent of his passes, breaking his own 2009 NFL record 70.6 completion percentage.

In terms of playoff seeding, New Orleans gained nothing with the victory, finishing with the third seed because San Francisco (13-3), which had a better conference record, held onto the second seed by winning at St. Louis.

Yet New Orleans hadn't forgotten the bitterness of limping into the playoffs with a loss in their last regular-season game a season ago before being bounced by underdog Seattle in the first round.

"You obviously saw the result last year, and we didn't feel like we came out and played well or carried momentum into the playoffs," Brees said. "I feel like we're playing our best football right now. This is where we wanted to be."

Jimmy Graham had 97 yards receiving to finish with 1,310, exceeding Kellen Winslow's 1980 record of 1,290 for a tight end. But New England's Rob Gronkowski finished with 1,327 yards, establishing a new mark.

Darren Sproles had 40 yards rushing, 29 yards receiving and 99 yards on kickoff and punt returns to finish with season with an NFL record 2,969 combined yards, easily breaking the previous mark of 2,690, set by Derrick Mason with Tennessee in 2000.

Carolina (6-10), which had won four of five, kept up for much of the first half but wilted over the final two quarters while the Saints set a franchise single-game record with 617 yards of total offense.

"We caught a football team that is on a roll right now," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "That's a playoff-caliber football team that did that to us."

Marques Colston caught Brees' first two scoring passes, making a spectacular, spinning catch with arms outstretched on the first one from 15 yards out.

Colston's second touchdown went for 42 yards, and he finished with seven catches for 145 yards.

Afterward, Colston, who studied psychology at Hofstra, declared: "Mentally and emotionally, we're as prepared as a team can be."

Brees also connected with Graham on a 19-yard scoring strike, and added TD passes of 9 yards to Sproles and 1 yard to fullback Jed Collins.

Graham's TD catch was his 11th, matching a club record also reached by Joe Horn in 2004 and Colston in 2007.

Brees surpassed 300 yards passing for the seventh straight game and 13th time this season, both NFL records he already held and simply extended.

The records come one week after Brees passed Dan Marino's 27-yard-old single-season record of 5,084 yards passing.

Brees finished the season with 5,476 yards to go with 46 touchdown passes, fourth most in NFL history. First is New England's Tom Brady with 50 in 2007.

Remarkably, Brees didn't even play most of the fourth quarter for the second time in three games. As was the case in a 42-20 win at Minnesota two weeks earlier, Brees was relieved by Chase Daniel after the Saints had built a commanding lead.

With six touchdowns against Carolina, the Saints finished with 66 this season breaking the 2009 record of 64. New Orleans' 547 points smashed the 2009 club record of 510 and was the third highest total in NFL history behind the 2007 Patriots (589) and the 1998 Minnesota Vikings (556).

Still, Brees balked at the opportunity to engage in much self-congratulating for the history he and head coach Sean Payton's offense have made this season.

"All this stuff along the way is awesome and special and we can reflect on that for years and years, but you play this game for championships, for rings, because that links you together forever," Brees said. "Here we are having accomplished so much, and yet the ultimate prize is still out there."

Cam Newton closed out an otherwise spectacular rookie season 15 of 25 for 158 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

"It was embarrassing how we ended that game," Newton said. "Offense, defense, special teams, the whole 9 yards, it was real tough."

The Saints had 360 yards of total offense in the first half, when they easily blew past the Rams' 2000 yardage record of 7,075.

Brees passed for 249 yards in the half, when he hit Colston for the Saints' first two passing touchdowns.

Both defenses struggled for much of the half, and each team might have scored more if not for Patrick Robinson's interception of Newton in the Saints' end zone and R.J. Stanford's interception of Brees deep in Panthers territory.

Chris Ivory gave the Saints a 7-0 lead on the opening series of the game with his 35-yard touchdown run.

The Panthers hit right back with Newton's 12-yard timing pass to Steve Smith to tie it. Later, Jonathan Stewart's 29-yard scoring run pulled the Panthers into a tie at 17 with 1:18 to go in the second quarter.

That was too much time for Brees who connected on his long TD pass to Colston with 7 seconds on the clock to make it 24-17 at halftime.

NOTES: Colston set a club record with his fifth 1,000-yard season with the Saints, moving ahead of Joe Horn, who had four. ... Saints P Thomas Morstead set a record for punting average in a season at 47.9 yards. ... The Saints went 8-0 at home for the first time in franchise history. ... Carolina officials said after the game that CB Darius Butler had a broken arm, but they did not specify which one, while TE Greg Olsen had a concussion. ... Newton was sacked twice, bruising his non-throwing left elbow on one sack by rookie Saints linebacker Martez Wilson. ... Payton said WR Robert Meachem was taken out of the game as a precaution with knee pain in the third quarter.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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