NEW ORLEANS - Cam Newton kept handing off to DeAngelo Williams on Sunday, and then all he could see was the back of his No. 34 jersey, heading downfield through gaping holes against the worst defense in NFL history.
Picking apart what statistically qualifies as the most porous defense in league annals, Williams rushed for a franchise-record 210 yards on 21 carries, and the Carolina Panthers rolled up 530 yards in total offense and scored 28 consecutive second-half points to points to defeat the New Orleans Saints 44-38 Sunday at the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
"We were running it even though people knew we were going to run it," Newton said.
Williams credited his blocking, which created huge vacuums in the Saints' defense.
"They opened the holes and I ran through them," he said. "We had a lot of success against them in the first game this season on the ground, and we committed to the run all day today."
The Panthers' offensive output added a final humiliation to a black-cloud season for the Saints defense. The Saints (7-9) allowed 7,042 yards in 16 games (a 440.1-yard average), breaking the all-time NFL record of 6,793 yards set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
"It's totally unacceptable what happened today," said Saints interim coach Joe Vitt. "We talk about the keys to victory, and they outrushed us by almost 200 yards and converted twice as much on third down. It's catastrophic. There's no way to sugar-coat this."
In sweeping the Saints and finishing the season with four consecutive victories, the Panthers (7-9) rebounded from a 24-13 hole early in the second half with touchdowns on four of five possessions, two of which came at the end of 80-yard drives during which the Saints could not stop Williams.
Newton completed 16-of-33 passes for 248 yards, but the real story was the way he rebounded after twice leaving the game with injuries. The second injury came after his left ankle was twisted by Turk McBride following a pass.
"For him to come back twice showed his resilience," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
The victory also may have taken some of the heat off Rivera, whose job will be evaluated in the coming days by team owner Jerry Richardson. But it would be hard for Richardson to fire a coach whose team won five of its last six games.
"We asked the players to play hard for themselves and each other," Rivera said. "I'm very proud of those men in the locker room. It's been a tough road for us. I'm happy for them and our fans."
The Panthers led 41-24 with 8:23 left before the Saints got two late touchdown passes from Drew Brees to make the result look respectable.
Brees took the Saints 80 yards in eight plays following the second-half kickoff and found tight end Jimmy Graham for a 19-yard score, giving the Saints a 24-13 lead.
But it was a critical replay review on Carolina's next series that turned the game's momentum. Tight end Greg Olsen made a spectacular left-handed grab on the left sidelines, but safety Roman Harper punched out the ball on the tackle, and cornerback Johnny Patrick picked up the loose ball at the Carolina 22. Officials on the field ruled it was not a turnover.
Vitt challenged the call, but referee Al Riveron said while Olsen had fumbled, it was unclear whether Patrick, whose right foot was close to the sidelines, had a "clear path" to recovering the ball. Carolina retained possession at the Panther 23, and three plays later, Williams burst 54 yards through the left side for a touchdown that drew Carolina within 24-20.
Two series later, Brees threw into coverage and was picked off by safety Charles Godfrey at the New Orleans 36. Newton found Steve Smith for 31 yards on a seam route, and Mike Tolbert got the payoff with one-yard touchdown run, putting the Panthers up 27-24.
Tolbert got his third one-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter, and Williams took advantage of Armanti Edwards' 61-yard punt return for a 12-yard touchdown run off left tackle, extending the Carolina lead to 41-24 with 8:23 left.
Notes: Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 15,000 cumulative yards in seasons in succession... Brees finished with 43 TD passes, making him only the second quarterback in NFL history -- the other was Dan Marino -- to have two seasons of at least 40 touchdown passes... Charles Godfrey's only two interceptions this season came against Brees. His interception Sunday set up a critical touchdown. "We knew what they wanted to do," Godfrey said. "In watching the film, they love that route. I got kind of low so he wouldn't see me and he threw it." ... With four catches for 121 yards, Lance Moore recorded his first 1,000-yard receiving season... Seven of the Panthers' nine losses were by six or fewer points.