Besides middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the New Orleans Saints played their starters and played to win, even though San Francisco was sealing up the No. 2 seed with a win over the St. Louis Rams.  Drew Brees and the offense looked poised to make another Super Bowl run, and the defense rebounded from a poor first half to hold Cam Newton and the Panthers scoreless in the second half.  The Saints led 24-17 at the half, and instead of resting starters, they came out and made a statement.  

Turning Point:  

With the score tied 17-17, and the game headed to the half, Brees used the last 1:18 to lead the Saints down the field, ending the drive with a beautiful 42-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston in the corner of the end zone.  The score was within reach still at 24-17, but the Saints' offense had records to break, and they did.  They broke several team records, including most offensive yards with 7,474, most passing yards with 5,347, and most first downs in an NFL season with 416.  Early in the third quarter, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton injured his left hand.  Despite his return, the game was all but over at this point.  The Saints defense came up big in the second-half, forcing four punts and a turnover.

Key Players:

Drew Brees, Saints -  Remember opening night of the season when the Saints went to Green Bay and lost 42-34?  Since then, Aaron Rodgers has been dubbed the front-runner for the MVP race.  All Drew Brees has done is end the year with the record for highest completion percentage (71.6%), number of completions with 468, number of 300-yard games in a season with 13, and broke Dan Marino's 26 year old record for most passing yards in a season with 5,476 yards.  Today, Brees added five touchdowns and 389 yards and has the Saints ready for a deep playoff-run.

Cam Newton, Panthers -   Despite today not being his best day, the rookie sensation deserves a spot here.  This is not overstating it -- Cam Newton may have changed the way we look at the quarterback position forever.  With his size and speed, we all knew he would be exciting.  The strong arm, poise in the pocket, and smart decision-making were the difference makers.  Newton is the first player in NFL history to have 4,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards.  Notice, I did not say the first rookie, rather the first player EVER.  With some help at wide receiver, alongside Steve Smith, Newton and the Panthers could be looking forward to a winning season next year.  Head Coach Ron Rivera deserves credit too, coming from the defensive side of the ball, he handled the Newton transition smoothly and both Rivera and Newton will go into next season with high expectations.

Most Telling Stat/Fact:

The Saints ended their home record at 8-0 for the first time in the organization's history.  An un-explainable loss to the Rams earlier in the season may come back to bite the Saints if they end up traveling to Green Bay for a re-match of the season opener.  The Saints look unbeatable at home.  

What it Means for the Winner:

Get ready for either Atlanta or Detroit to come into town next week for the first round of the playoffs, depending on seeding.  The offense looks primed for a playoff-run.  Not only Drew Brees, but Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory, and Pierre Thomas are giving the Saints a rushing attack that is reminiscent of 2009 when they won the Superbowl.  If the Saints are going to go back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win on the road, and if they are going to win on the road in the playoffs, they are going to need a running game.  The Saints are ready to march.

What it Means for the Loser:

Despite the blowout, the Panthers exceeded expectations this season.  After only winning two games last year, new head coach Ron Rivera led the team to a 6-10 record, has the rookie of the year in quarterback Cam Newton, and some real excitement around the Panthers.  Rivera can now focus on the defense and adding another weapon for Newton to throw the ball to.  The Panthers arrow is definitely trending up.