CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- How did the Carolina Panthers pull off their 27-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints? It certainly wasn’t with great defense, as was the case in the first two games -- at least until Josh Norman's spectacular interception in the end zone with 1:09 left.
Norman went up high and somehow came down with the ball. Until then, the Panthers made New Orleans backup quarterback Luke McCown look like Drew Brees. This one was won because the New Orleans defense played slightly worse than Carolina’s and because Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was spectacular.
Newton had his most efficient game of the season passing, completing 20 of 31 attempts for 315 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 13 yards for a touchdown. There was no Superman flip like last week's, but it was a super effort.
What it means: The Panthers needed to collect as many wins as possible early, with a tough stretch ahead after next week's game against Tampa Bay. This one wasn't pretty as a Carolina defense that came in ranked fifth in the NFL gave up way too many big plays. But a win, even if it was ugly, was the objective.
What were they thinking? A pivotal moment late in the first half came when the Panthers challenged a first-down spot for New Orleans after a third-and-19 completion. The replay officials agreed with Carolina. Instead of having a 10-7 lead and driving at their own 40, the Saints had to punt. The Panthers answered with a late field goal to erase what was left of a Saints lead.
One reason to get excited: The last time the Panthers started 3-0 was the 2003 season, which ended with a trip to the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers are next on the schedule, so there's reason to believe a 4-0 start is possible.
One reason to panic: Special teams were supposed to be upgraded by additions such as Teddy Williams. He had a penalty on a punt to negate a big special teams play that pinned the Saints deep. On the re-kick, they went 74 yards for a touchdown.
Fantasy watch: Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen continues to be a big target for Newton. He had eight catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns, reminding the Saints (now minus Jimmy Graham) what a top tight end looks like.
Ouch: Defensive end Charles Johnson left late in the third quarter with a hamstring injury that kept him out of practice most of the week. He limped off with trainers, then was taken to the locker room and did not return.
Dog house: Wes Horton started over Kony Ealy at right defensive tackle. Ealy had a roughing the passer and offside penalty on a late drive last week to keep a Houston rally alive. He had an illegal hands to the face penalty to negate a tackle for loss in this one.