NFL: Brees rests, Saints routed by Panthers 23-10
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton decided the risk of injury outweighed heading into the playoffs on a positive note.
The backups responded with an ugly performance that sends the No. 1 seed in the NFC to the postseason on a three-game losing streak.
Jonathan Stewart rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown and the Carolina Panthers finished their disappointing season with a 23-10 win over the lifeless Saints on Sunday.
Drew Brees came out for the coin toss and never saw the field again, allowing him to break the NFL record for completion percentage in a season. Backup Mark Brunell had few options with many other starters resting, too, and New Orleans (13-3) looked nothing like the team that less than a month ago was flirting with a perfect season.
It allowed the Panthers (8-8) to finish on a three-game winning streak amid questions about the future of coach John Fox, defensive end Julius Peppers and quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Matt Moore threw for 162 yards and a touchdown to Dwayne Jarrett to finish 4-1 as a starter after the struggling Delhomme was sidelined with a broken finger.
Peppers intercepted Brunell late in the game ahead of perhaps another tumultuous offseason of free agency. And Fox faces a decision on whether he may try to leave for another job with the Panthers yet to extend his contract past next season.
Stewart had a 67-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage against the makeshift Saints defense. Stewart surpassed Pro Bowl pick DeAngelo Williams for the team rushing lead as they became the first teammates since the AFL-NFL merger to each rush for over 1,100 yards.
Williams (1,117 yards) sat out his second straight game with a sprained ankle, while Stewart (1,133 yards) left in the third quarter after aggravating his chronic left Achilles' tendon injury.
By then it resembled a preseason game — with the 30-degree temperature at kickoff the exception — as the Saints sideline jammed with starters and the game never in doubt.
Jeremy Shockey never saw the field. Much of the Saints offensive line got the second half off. By the start of the second half, only nose tackle Remi Ayodele and cornerback Tracy Porter were on the field among the normal Saints defensive starters.
The Saints looked disjointed with the different lineups and trailed 17-3 at halftime after Carolina scored 10 points in the final 13 seconds.
Jarrett, the disappointing 2007 second-round pick, was active only because Steve Smith broke his left forearm a week earlier. But Jarrett had a leaping fourth-down catch, then caught a 30-yard touchdown — his first as a pro — to put the Panthers up 14-3.
Courtney Roby then fumbled the kickoff return, Dante Wesley recovered and John Kasay's 41-yard field goal on the final play of the half gave the bundled-up crowd something to cheer about.
Backup Lynell Hamilton's 1-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter was the only TD for New Orleans. The 39-year-old Brunell, making his first start since 2006 in Washington, was 15 of 29 for 102 yards and an interception.
Brees finished the season with a completion rate of 70.60 percent, besting the previous NFL record of 70.55 by Ken Anderson of Cincinnati set in 1982.
Reggie Bush rushed only five times for 35 yards as the Saints fell to 7-1 on the road. Still, they know they'll have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.