Brees, Saints set records, beat Panthers, 45-17
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — After Drew Brees capped a record-setting season by shredding yet another defense, the Saints' star quarterback was conflicted.
As a student of the game, he wanted to appreciate the history-making regular season New Orleans had just concluded. Yet there simply wasn't much time to spend on flattery while a playoff game with Detroit loomed less than a week away.
"The real season starts now," Brees said. "We're rolling. We want to keep it rolling, but it's a quick turnaround. There's not time to sit and enjoy anything."
Brees passed for 389 yards and five touchdowns, and the 2011 Saints offense went into the books as one of the best the NFL has ever seen while blowing out the Carolina Panthers 45-17 on Sunday.
The NFL single-season records set by the Saints (13-3), who head into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak, included offensive yards with 7,474, team yards passing with 5,347 and first downs with 416.
Brees, who was 28 of 35, finished with a record 468 completions this season, breaking Peyton Manning's 2010 mark of 450. He finished the season completing 71.6 percent of his passes, breaking his own 2009 NFL record 70.6 completion percentage.
In terms of playoff seeding, New Orleans gained nothing with the victory, finishing with the third seed because San Francisco (13-3), which had a better conference record, held onto the second seed by winning at St. Louis. That result locked the Saints into a first-round home date with the Lions (10-6) on Saturday night.
Still, the Saints were less concerned with seeding than they were by memories of limping into the playoffs with a loss in their regular-season finale a year ago before being bounced by underdog Seattle in the first round.
Coach Sean Payton and his players decided the risk of injury did not outweigh the opportunity to build on the momentum they had established in a string of impressive performances since November.
Brees alluded to the fact that several teams in recent years — the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2007 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers — did not require rest to win Super Bowls.
"It doesn't matter how you got there. It's how are you playing now and what direction are you headed?" Brees said. "I feel like we're playing our best football right now. This is where we wanted to be."
Jimmy Graham had 97 yards receiving to finish with 1,310, exceeding Kellen Winslow's 1980 record of 1,290 for a tight end. But New England's Rob Gronkowski finished with 1,327 yards, establishing a new mark.
Darren Sproles had 40 yards rushing, 29 yards receiving and 99 yards on kickoff and punt returns to finish the season with an NFL record 2,696 combined yards, breaking the previous mark of 2,690, set by Derrick Mason with Tennessee in 2000.
Carolina (6-10), which had won four of five, kept up for much of the first half but wilted over the final two quarters while the Saints set a franchise single-game record with 617 yards of total offense.
"We caught a football team that is on a roll right now," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
Marques Colston caught Brees' first two scoring passes, making a spectacular, spinning, 15-yard catch with arms outstretched on the first one.
Colston's second touchdown went for 42 yards, and he finished with seven catches for 145 yards.
Brees also connected with Graham on a 19-yard scoring strike, and added TD passes of 9 yards to Sproles and 1 yard to fullback Jed Collins.
Brees surpassed 300 yards passing for the seventh straight game and 13th time this season, building on NFL records he already owned.
One week after breaking Dan Marino's 27-yard-old single-season record of 5,084 yards passing, Brees finished the 2011 campaign with 5,476 yards to go with 46 touchdown passes, fourth most in NFL history. First is New England's Tom Brady with 50 in 2007.
With six touchdowns against Carolina, the Saints finished with 66 this season, breaking the 2009 record of 64. New Orleans' 547 points smashed the 2009 club record of 510 and was the third highest total in league history. The NFL record of 589 points belongs to the 2007 Patriots.
Cam Newton closed out an otherwise spectacular rookie season by going 15 of 25 for 158 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
"It was embarrassing how we ended that game," Newton said. "Offense, defense, special teams, the whole nine yards, it was real tough."
The Saints had 360 yards of total offense in the first half, storming past the Rams' 2000 yardage record of 7,075.
Chris Ivory gave the Saints a 7-0 lead on the opening series with his 35-yard touchdown run.
Newton's 12-yard timing pass to Steve Smith tied the score at 7. Jonathan Stewart's 29-yard scoring run pulled the Panthers into another tie at 17 with 1:18 left in the half.
That was too much time for Brees, who connected on his long TD pass to Colston with 7 seconds on the clock to make it 24-17.
Notes: Colston became the first Saint with five 1,000-yard seasons, moving ahead of Joe Horn, who had four. ... Saints P Thomas Morstead averaged 47.9 yards per punt in 2011 to break his own club record. ... The Saints went 8-0 at home for the first time in franchise history. ... Carolina officials said after the game that CB Darius Butler had a broken arm, but they did not specify which one, while TE Greg Olsen had a concussion.