NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees and the Saints can hardly wait to get Sean Payton back and move beyond the bounty scandal that overshadowed their worst season in half a decade.
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"It's going to be an eye-opener for some people, I'm sure, as it should be, because this is not our standard, what happened this year," Brees said as he spoke of Payton's impending return from his season-long suspension in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation. "Sean's going to come in chomping at the bit and we're going to have to be ready to roll. This offseason can't come fast enough."
The Panthers trotted to the locker room brimming with hope about 2013 after closing the season winning four straight and five out of six. That finish will reflect well on coach Ron Rivera, who has been answering questions about his job security as his second straight losing season wound down.
"I'm proud of the fact that those guys showed up every day and worked, did the things we asked and did them very well," said Rivera, whose eyes were red after he stood by the locker room door and exchanged hugs with players walking off the field. "This is a good group of men and they deserved this. They deserved the opportunity to win four in a row."
He said he wants to be back and expects to meet with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson in Charlotte in the next couple days.
"Mr. Richardson has been fair and I appreciate the opportunity he has given me, and we will see how things unfold," Rivera said.
Brees passed for 396 yards, giving him 5,177 this season, also third most behind the 2011 totals of himself (5,476) and New England's Tom Brady (5,235). Brees became the first player to eclipse 5,000 yards three times. His four TD passes gave him 43 in 2012, and he's the first player with 40 TD passes in consecutive seasons.
The Saints (7-9) also gave up 530 yards, raising their season total to 7,042 to break the old record of 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
"Totally unacceptable what happened today," said Joe Vitt, who has been serving as interim head coach during Payton's absence. "Very disappointing. There's no way to sugarcoat this."
Payton, who agreed to a five-year contract extension, is expected to return to work after New Orleans plays host to the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.
"To have gone through what we went through this year and just to hang tough ... it would have been very easy at times to fracture and not have the togetherness that we had," Brees said. "We just have to believe that what happened this year is going to serve us well in the future."
Carolina has its own reasons to be optimistic about 2013.
Newton was intercepted once, but for only the second time in seven games. The interception, returned 18 yards for a touchdown in the first half, was made by linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a central figure in the bounty scandal. Vilma, who the NFL called a ringleader in the Saints' cash-for-hits program, initially was suspended the entire season. He never served a game of that ban after he, defensive end Will Smith, and former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove fought successfully to have their suspensions of various lengths thrown out on appeal.
Leading 24-13, the Saints looked ready to seize control in the third quarter. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen fumbled along the sideline in Carolina territory, and defensive back Johnny Patrick appeared to recover. Initially, the play was blown dead and Olsen ruled down. Vitt challenged the call, and the play was ruled a fumble, but Patrick's right foot was so close to the sideline that referee Al Riveron could not determine if the Saints took possession.
"He didn't get the same angle that we, I guess, had on the Jumbotron," Vitt said, adding he was more upset by his team's mistakes after that pivotal play.
The ball remained with the Panthers, and Williams ran for his long TD soon afterward.
Carolina took a 27-24 lead after converting Brees' 19th interception of the season into Tolbert's second short scoring run. Charles Godfrey picked off an underthrown pass that had Brees ripping at his chin strap in disgust.
Two of Brees' scoring passes went to Marques Colston for 7 and 9 yards. He also hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 19-yard score and Darren Sproles for a 33-yard TD in the fourth quarter as the Saints, who trailed 41-24 with 8:23 left, nearly mounted a late comeback.
- Lance Moore had four catches for 121 yards and Graham had nine catches for 115 yards. Moore finished with a career-high 1,041 yards receiving, second on team behind Colston's 1,154.
- Colston had five catches to give him 532, tied for first in franchise history with Eric Martin.
- In the fourth quarter, Newton appeared to injure his lower left leg. It was caught awkwardly under defensive end Turk McBride on a hit shortly after Newton had thrown. Newton returned after missing several plays to complete a touchdown drive.