The 31-26 loss in the NFC wild-card round in New Orleans brought the season to an end Sunday. The Panthers went 11-6, so half of their defeats came against the Saints.
"They most certainly were our nemesis," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of the Saints. "They got the leg up on us. ... We played against a very good football team that made plays when they needed to. We didn't make some plays. We had a chance. I'm very proud of the way (our team) played, but we missed our chance."
The game went along a script that might have described several Panthers games this season. The offense had troubles in the red zone and those were particularly costly in this game. The Panthers had four field goals before they broke through for their first touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
But in the fourth quarter, the Panthers had two possessions with a chance to take the lead. That wasn't soothing, particularly when they were unable to convert on their last drive after moving into New Orleans territory.
"We didn't come here to just get a shot," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We came here to win."
Newton exited the game for a play in the fourth quarter when he was sacked. He said his helmet pressed down onto his eye, thus causing the discomfort that resulted in his brief exit.
Rivera said the proper process was followed amid suggestions that the Panthers might not have followed the procedure for the concussion protocol.
"It wasn't my head, it was my eye," Newton said.
Backup quarterback Derek Anderson threw an incomplete pass on his lone play.
Newton said the last drive in which he was called for intentional grounding and later sacked on fourth down wasn't the main reason the Panthers lost. He said there were missed opportunities throughout the game that were damaging.
"We could have played better as a team," Newton said.
The Panthers suffered four of their losses during the season to NFC South opponents. The defeat to Atlanta to cap the regular season cost the Panthers a chance to open the playoffs at home.
Then came Sunday's playoff loss in the team's first postseason game since the Super Bowl setback two years ago.
The Panthers managed to avoid a knockout punch against the Saints, staying in range. They just couldn't come up with another big play on offense.
"This kind of epitomizes the season," Rivera said. "Close. Close. Close. Guys fought, did a lot of good things. I liked the fight. Very resilient."
With the Panthers out of the playoff mix a year ago and questions about Newton's health entering the season, it was a solid bounce-back season. But given the late-season four-game winning streak, there were higher hopes.
"They should be proud of where they got to," Rivera said. "Nobody gave them a chance."
Lost in the commotion of the season-ending loss, quarterback Cam Newton passed for a playoff franchise-record 349 yards at New Orleans. He had the previous mark of 335 yards two years earlier against Arizona.
Still, it wasn't good enough for Newton.
"I've just got to be better," Newton said. "I'm not going to take the coward's way (and point fingers)."
Newton passed former quarterback Jake Delhomme on the franchise list for career postseason completions. Newton has 134.
With the outing in New Orleans, defensive end Julius Peppers played in his 18th career postseason game. That's tied for fifth-most among active players in the NFL.
Now the question facing Peppers is if he will return for a 17th NFL season.
"I'll talk to my family," Peppers said.
Nine of his postseason games have come as a member of the Panthers. That's tied for the third-most postseason appearances in franchise history.
NOTES: DE Charles Johnson was inactive for the playoff game, one game after returning from a four-game NFL suspension. This could signal the end of his time with the team. ... CB Kevon Seymour missed the playoff game after he became ill. He was placed on the inactive list for the game. ... K Graham Gano had the longest field goal in franchise history when he hit a 58-yarder to end the first half. It tied for the longest field goal in NFL playoff history. Pete Stoyanovich of Miami hit a 58-yarder against Kansas City in 1980.
REPORT CARD VS. SAINTS
--PASSING OFFENSE: D-plus - The Panthers had dropped passes and weren't at all effective in the red zone. The pass protection was shoddy, particularly down the stretch. A big pass play to RB Christian McCaffrey in the fourth quarter gave the Panthers a chance. The disputed intentional grounding penalty on the final possession was a devastating blow. QB Cam Newton passed for 349 yards without an interception, something that normally would be a good sign.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: C - The Panthers had moments when the ground attack showed signs of movement and this was an upgrade from the previous week. The team eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark, but couldn't rely on gaining some key yards. RB Jonathan Stewart had a decent bounce-back outing, rushing for a team-best 51 yards on 11 carries.
--PASS DEFENSE: C-minus - The Panthers gave up 376 passing yards to QB Drew Brees, so that's a blemish. There was some good pressure on the quarterback, but only one sack recorded. The big pass play to WR Ted Ginn Jr., a former Panther, went for an 80-yard touchdown and the Panthers trailed for the rest of the game.
--RUSH DEFENSE: A - The Panthers allowed less than 2 yards per carry and had several plays that resulted in lost yardage for the Saints. The defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage against a team that had posted some big rushing marks during the season.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus - K Graham Gano made four of five field-goal attempts, with the miss coming early in the game from 25 yards out. He made up for that with a 58-yarder to end the first half. The Panthers also benefited by some special-teams penalties on the Saints.
--COACHING: C-plus - The Panthers came closer to winning this game than the two previous games this season against the Saints, so that might have been a sign of positive adjustments. But being unable to get over the hump against a divisional rival isn't going to cut it. Some good time management at the end of both halves put the Panthers in position to come up with a better result.