Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 2:49 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Even as Drew Brees and the Saints walked out of the Superdome disappointed by another loss that sealed their worst record since 2007, they could look forward with certainty to the return of Sean Payton and the opportunity to leave behind the bounty scandal that overshadowed a difficult season.
The Carolina Panthers, by contrast, could not be sure who their coach might be next season, even though they celebrated a fourth-straight victory and fifth in six games.
If Ron Rivera does not return as Carolina's coach after a second straight losing season, he can at least take pride in the fact this his players never quit on him, even rallying from 11-points down, on the road, in a low-stakes season finale, to beat the Saints 44-38 on Sunday.
"I tip my hat off to everybody that played and coach for the last month and a half," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said, adding that it would have been "easy for a lot of people to just give up and tap out and say, 'Well, we are not playing for anything.'"
Rivera clearly appreciated the effort. His eyes were red after he stood by the locker room door and exchanged hugs with players walking off the field.
"I'm proud of the fact that those guys showed up every day and worked, did the things we asked and did them very well," Rivera said. "This is a good group of men."
Rivera said he wants to be back and expects to meet with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson in Charlotte in the next couple days.
"Mr. Richardson has been fair and I appreciate the opportunity he has given me, and we will see how things unfold," Rivera said.
DeAngelo Williams rushed for a career-high 210 yards, including touchdown runs of 54 and 12 yards, for Carolina (7-9). His 65-yard gain set up the first of three 1-yard scoring runs by Mike Tolbert. Cam Newton added 248 yards passing and Graham Gano kicked field goals of 20, 31 and 42 yards. The Panthers finished with 530 yards, which doomed the Saints' defense to a dubious distinction in their first season under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The Saints (7-9) gave up 7,042 yards this season, breaking the old record of 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
"You get what you deserve," Saints linebacker and defensive captain Jon Vilma said of the record yardage total. "You don't play good defense, that's what's going to happen. Be a man and suck it up."
Brees continued to make history of a more flattering kind.
He passed for 396 yards, giving him 5,177 this season, the third most in league history behind the 2011 totals of himself (5,476) and New England's Tom Brady (5,235). Brees became the first player to eclipse 5,000 yards three times (none of the other three QBs to hit 5,000 — Dan Marino, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford — have done it more than once). Brees' four TD passes gave him 43 in 2012, and he's the first player with 40 TD passes in consecutive seasons.
Brees was still perturbed that his 19th interception, which wound up tying with Dallas' Tony Romo for the most in the NFL, led to the score that put the Panthers ahead to stay in the third quarter.
Brees predicted Payton, who was suspended this season in connection with the NFL's bounty probe, will return this winter with ideas of how to clean up the errors that doomed the Saints this season.
"It's going to be an eye-opener for some people, I'm sure, as it should be, because this is not our standard, what happened this year," Brees said. "Sean's going to come in chomping at the bit and we're going to have to be ready to roll. This offseason can't come fast enough."
Payton, who agreed to a contract extension through 2017, is expected to return to work after the Super Bowl is played in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
Although the Saints' defense had a rough day, the unit gave New Orleans its first lead, 14-10, when Vilma intercepted Newton and ran 18 yards for a touchdown. The Superdome crowd roared in support of Vilma, a central figure in the bounty scandal who initially had been suspended the whole season. He never served one game of the ban after he, defensive end Will Smith, and former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove fought successfully to have their suspensions of various lengths overturned.
Leading 24-13, the Saints looked ready to seize control in the third quarter. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen fumbled along the sideline in Carolina territory, and defensive back Johnny Patrick appeared to recover. Initially, the play was blown dead and Olsen ruled down. Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt challenged the call, and the play was ruled a fumble, but Patrick's right foot was so close to the sideline that referee Al Riveron could not determine if the Saints took possession.
The ball remained with the Panthers, and Williams ran for his long TD soon afterward.
Two of Brees' scoring passes went to Marques Colston for 7 and 9 yards. He also hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 19-yard score and Darren Sproles for a 33-yard TD in the fourth quarter as the Saints, who trailed 41-24 with 8:23 left, nearly mounted a late comeback.