It may not have looked very pretty on paper, but this game was still one of the defining moments of Cam Newton's career. His lone touchdown was the one that won the game and sent the Panthers to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. In addition, he threw for 181 yards and went 13-22 for an 81.8 QBR. Although he struggled early (he threw an interception on the very first drive) and couldn't convert on a single third down, he came through when in mattered, and that's the kind of thing that will take you a long way in the playoffs.
Running Backs: B
With Jonathan Stewart still inactive, DeAngelo Williams saw a bit of a dip in his performance from last week. If you didn't count the 43-yard touchdown run that gave the Panthers the lead going into halftime, he averaged just over two yards per carry. That's not going to work in the playoffs. Now that Steve Smith is injured (out indefinitely as of this writing), the Panthers can no longer rely entirely on their receiving corps to make big plays. DeAngelo (and Jonathan, who may or may not play next week) must find ways to power through defenses.
Wide Receivers: A-
Ted Ginn had his best outing since October 24th against Tampa Bay, catching two of four for 66 yards. Domenik Hixon, despite not even playing in over a month, made the game's most important play, coming up clutch to win the game with a diving touchdown grab. Workhorse TE Greg Olsen caught four of seven for 35 yards, and Steve Smith got in a 44-yard reception before his knee injury. It will be interesting to see how well the receivers (and the offense as a whole) can adapt to the loss of someone who was a leader on paper and in the locker room.
Offensive Line: B-
At some points the performance of the Panthers' O Line could best be described as the alternative interpretation of its namesake. However, they did hold firm on the final drive, giving Cam Newton the time and the space to make those few critical throws. However, these guys have got to stop letting their quarterback get thrown around like that. Four sacks is not an acceptable result against ANY team.
Defensive Line: A
The Kraken devoured Drew Brees a total of 3 times and recorded two other TFLs. Mario Addison also split one with safety Mike Mitchell. A D Line that is always capable of putting pressure on the quarterback means that the linebackers only have to worry about zone coverage, making the entire defense that much more effective.
#MVKuechly should be right up there with #KeepPounding, and yet it still isn't trending. Seriously, do NONE of you people have Twitter? All half-jokes aside, Luke took part in 24 tackles, tying the mark for most in a game. Thomas Davis also had 14 tackles as the Panthers continue to sustain one of the most fearsome linebacking units in the NFL. These guys will definitely be one of the cornerstones of this team going into the playoffs.
It seems that a few members of the secondary decided to do a Job Swap-esque switcheroo with the linebackers. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Quintin Mikell both recorded a sack, while Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis both came up with a pick each. Whatever the case, these guys held Drew Brees to 281 yards (an off day by his standards) and will look forward to getting a relatively easy run against the Falcons next week. If they can keep up this level of play through the month of January, we might get to see them play in February.
Special Teams: A-
Brad Nortman looked good as usual, averaging about 51 yards on eight punts with two being downed inside the 20. Although they did punt a bit more than usual, the Panthers didn't give up much on returns, as the longest one the Saints managed was 11 yards. When it was the Panthers' turn to bring it back, however, a familiar problem arose: Ted Ginn's lack of ability to bring it past the 20. Seriously, if you can't do it, just take the touchback, because it's not worth taking the hit and risking injury. With Steve Smith out, the Panthers need Ginn more than ever, so he's got to learn some self-preservation.