A win they had to have: Carolina Panthers edge Saints behind TDs from Shenault, defense

The Carolina Panthers — and their fans — can finally breathe a little.

The Panthers broke out of their year-long funk at home in a crowd-pleasing way Sunday, edging the New Orleans Saints 22-14 behind a fine defensive performance and a late touchdown from a new addition playing his first-ever game for Carolina.

Laviska Shenault Jr. electrified the stadium when he took a 5-yard pass from Baker Mayfield, sped through two would-be tacklers and went 67 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. It was the first catch Shenault had ever made as a Panther. That TD helped short-circuit a possible Saints comeback, as did an acrobatic big-man interception from Derrick Brown on New Orleans’ next series.

Down 22-7, New Orleans made it interesting late, scoring again with 2:22 to go and cutting the lead to 22-14. The Saints then tried an onside kick but the Panthers’ DJ Moore recovered the ball. Carolina ran the clock down to 27 seconds before kicking to New Orleans, which after a perfect Johnny Hekker punt put the ball at the New Orleans 1-yard line with 17 seconds left. Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn intercepted Jameis Winston’s desperation heave on the next play, and that was that.

Shenault was a revelation in this game. A healthy scratch in the Panthers’ first two contests, he was Carolina’s best receiver in Week 3, injecting a tepid passing offense with a jolt of muscular speed.

What does it all mean? Panthers head coach Matt Rhule won’t have to hear as many calls for his head this week. The defense won’t have to hear that it hasn’t caused a turnover all season. And the team’s fans — who had suffered through nine consecutive losses dating back to 2021 — won’t have to hear their team has the NFL’s longest active losing streak. Finally, everyone in black and blue gets to celebrate a win.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Rhule said of the afternoon, while acknowledging there was “a lot more work to do.”

“Trust me, I’m happy,” said Rhule, now 11-25 in his 36 games as Carolina’s head coach. “I’m happy that we won. I’m happy for these guys.”

Carolina (1-2) hadn’t won a game at home in Charlotte in 371 days, since they played the Saints in Week 2 of the 2021 season. That has made for a lot of unhappy crowds at Bank of America Stadium, where even now Rhule’s teams have only posted a 5-13 home record since he took over the squad before the 2020 season. The Panthers’ next two games are at home, too, against Arizona next week and then San Francisco on Oct. 9.

The Panthers grabbed a 13-0 halftime lead built on the strength of their defense and special teams and held on, even though the offensive performance was once again spotty behind inconsistent quarterback Baker Mayfield and a group of wide receivers that hardly ever seemed to create any separation — except for Shenault, who was acquired in a trade with Jacksonville in late August and is still learning the playbook.

Carolina Panther wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. scores on a 67-yard touchdown pass during a game against New Orleans at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept 25, 2022.
Carolina Panther wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. scores on a 67-yard touchdown pass during a game against New Orleans at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept 25, 2022.

Neither team scored in the third quarter, which gave the Panthers that same 13-0 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Then the Saints started marching, as Winston finally found his footing after three scoreless periods and completed seven consecutive passes over and through a Carolina defense that suddenly was getting no pressure. Mark Ingram’s 5-yard touchdown run capped an 89-yard drive and cut Carolina’s lead to 13-7 with 12:31 to go.

Just when it started getting dicey for Carolina, though, Shenault came to the rescue. He ran the ensuing kickoff back 36 yards. Two plays later, Shenault took Mayfield’s short pass and — for one week anyway — helped save the Panthers’ season.

Before that, Carolina’s passing offense had looked awful.

“I’m going to look back at the tape and then not be really happy with how I played,” said Mayfield, who completed 12 of 25 passes for 170 yards and the one TD to Shenault. He didn’t turn the ball over and didn’t have any tipped passes this week, but his third-down throws were poor.

Mayfield opened the game by throwing his first three passes at least five yards away from their intended target, and he never got much better. Mayfield’s timing with perennial 1,000-yard wide receiver Moore remains horrible (six targets, one catch), and running back Christian McCaffrey remains under-utilized in the passing game. Moore and fellow starting wide receiver Robbie Anderson only had one reception apiece.

Carolina Panthers Christian McCaffrey is stopped by a host of Saints defenders during a game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept 25, 2022.
Carolina Panthers Christian McCaffrey is stopped by a host of Saints defenders during a game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept 25, 2022.

But the defense and special teams played well almost the entire day.

“Anytime you can have momentum without really playing well,” Mayfield said of the offensive performance, “it just lifts the mood all around.”

The Panthers hadn’t forced a turnover in five consecutive games entering Sunday. They were the only team in the NFL without a turnover caused in the first two games this year. They also forced no turnovers in their final three games of 2021.

That changed in a big way in the first quarter Sunday, when linebacker Frankie Luvu stripped the ball away from Alvin Kamara. Marquis Haynes played “Look what I found” and picked the ball up, then showcased some impressive speed as he rolled 44 yards for a defensive touchdown.

In the meantime, the Panthers’ special teams also played well. Kicker Eddy Pineiro is looking like a keeper, making kicks from 45 and 48 yards in the second quarter. And veteran defensive end Henry Anderson, a recent acquisition, blocked a 30-yard field goal attempt by New Orleans’ Wil Lutz to keep the Saints off the scoreboard late in the first half.

Lutz would miss again in the third quarter, pushing a 48-yard attempt wide right after a Jeremy Chinn sack blew up the Saints’ possession.