NEW ORLEANS — DeAngelo Williams ended a forgettable season with a memorable performance. Now Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera hopes owner Jerry Richardson remembers the way the year ended rather than how it started.
Williams rushed for a career-high 210 yards with two touchdowns on 21 carries as the Panthers won their fourth in a row, rallying to beat New Orleans 44-38 on Sunday. They looked nothing like the team that lost eight of its first 10, putting Rivera's job in serious jeopardy.
Rivera's eyes were red when he spoke in the media room moments after greeting players with hugs as they went into the locker room.
"I will sit down eventually with Mr. Richardson and we will evaluate the season," Rivera said. "Mr. Richardson has been fair, and I appreciate the opportunity he's given me. We'll see how things unfold. I want to be back."
Second-year quarterback Cam Newton completed 16 passes for 248 yards, but he took a back seat to Williams, who set up Mike Tolbert's first of three 1-yard TD runs with a 65-yard run to the 1 in the second quarter and raced 54 yards in the third quarter for their second TD.
Williams, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2008 and 2009, entered with 317 yards and a 2.4-yard average per carry for the year. HIs outburst capped a tremendous turnaround for the Panthers (7-9) in the last two months.
"They say good teams play well in November and December, and we proved that," Williams said. "Unfortunately we did not start out strong."
Drew Brees passed for 396 yards, giving him 5,177 this season. That makes him the first player to eclipse 5,000 yards three times. His four TD passes gave him 43 in 2012, and he's the first player with 40 TD passes in consecutive seasons.
The Saints (7-9) also gave up 530 yards, raising their season total to 7,042 to break the old record of 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
"Totally unacceptable what happened today," said Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has been serving as interim coach during Sean Payton's season-long suspension in the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints. "Very disappointing. There's no way to sugar coat this."
Payton, who agreed to a five-year contract extension, is expected to return to work after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.
"This offseason can't come fast enough," Brees said.
Carolina kicker Graham Gano had field goals of 20, 31 and 42 yards.
Cam Newton was intercepted once by Jonathan Vilma, a central figure in the bounty scandal who was initially suspended the entire season. But he never served a game of that ban after he, defensive end Will Smith, and former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove fought successfully to have their suspensions of various lengths thrown out on appeal.
The Superdome crowd was exuberant after Vilma – labeled by the NFL as a ringleader in the Saints' cash-for-hits program – returned the interception 18 yards for a touchdown that gave the Saints a 14-10 lead. The Panthers fell behind by as many as 11 points before surging in front in the second half.
In the fourth quarter, Newton appeared to injure his left ankle, which was caught awkwardly under defensive end Turk McBride on a hit shortly after Newton had delivered a throw. But Newton returned after missing several plays to complete a touchdown drive.
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 Saints defensive back Johnny Patrick appeared to recover it. 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. That cut the deficit to 24-20, and Carolina took a 27-24 lead after converting Brees' 19th interception of the season into Tolbert's second short scoring run. Safety Charles Godfrey picked off an underthrown pass that had Brees ripping at his chin strap in disgust.
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.
NOTES: Newton's 7,920 career yards passing are the most by any quarterback in his first two seasons. That distinction had belonged to Peyton Manning, who passed for 7,874 yards in 1998 and 1999.