Stewart rushes for 125 yards, TD as Panthers knock out Saints' backups

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Drew Brees' performance as team captain at the midfield coin toss was the closest he came to playing and seemingly the last time his New Orleans Saints had a chance to win in their regular-season finale.

So much for momentum going into the playoffs. The Saints decided to play it safe, and it means a three-game losing streak for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Jonathan Stewart rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown and the Carolina Panthers finished their disappointing season with a 23-10 win over the lifeless Saints on Sunday.

While the Carolina locker room was filled with speculation on whether coach John Fox will be back, if defensive end Julius Peppers will return and who the quarterback will be next season, the Saints were trying to convince folks they can turn it around in two weeks in the divisional round.

"Would I have loved it if we came out here and scored 41 today? I mean, yeah," Brees said. "But is it worth the risk?"

Coach Sean Payton didn't think so. Hours after commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL will consider offering incentives, such has draft picks, for teams to play their starters when the games are meaningless for playoff positioning, Payton wasn't interested.

"The idea of getting a draft pick and having your quarterback not healthy for a divisional playoff game doesn't sound real appealing to me," he said.

So 39-year-old Mark Brunell started for Brees. Jeremy Shockey never got on the field, Reggie Bush got only five carries and by the second half nearly every defensive starter was watching.

The backups proved no match for the Panthers, and the Saints (13-3) looked nothing like the team that less than a month ago was flirting with a perfect season.

"The key now is to get ourselves mentally and physically refreshed and ready." Payton said.

Sitting out allowed Brees to break the NFL record for completion percentage in a season with 70.60, besting the previous NFL record of 70.55 by Ken Anderson of Cincinnati set in 1982.

It also allowed the Panthers (8-8) to finish on a three-game winning streak. Matt Moore threw for 162 yards and a touchdown to Dwayne Jarrett to finish 4-1 as a starter after the struggling Delhomme was sidelined with a broken finger.

Peppers intercepted Brunell late in the game ahead of perhaps another tumultuous offseason of free agency. And Fox faces a decision on whether he may try to leave for another job with the Panthers yet to extend his contract past next season.

"I usually talk to my family and see where that all goes." Fox said when asked if he wanted to return.

Asked if he'd be willing to potentially be a lame-duck coach in 2010, Fox was noncommittal.

"I'd like to just get through this day and we'll see where everything goes after that," he said.

If it was his last game in Carolina, Stewart made it enjoyable with a 67-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage. He surpassed Pro Bowl pick DeAngelo Williams for the team rushing lead as they became the first teammates since the AFL-NFL merger to each rush for over 1,100 yards.

Williams (1,117 yards) sat out his second straight game with a sprained ankle, while Stewart (1,133 yards) left in the third quarter after aggravating his chronic left Achilles tendon injury.

"For us to both reach a goal like that says a lot about our team," Stewart said. "Our offensive line was real content on getting that."

The Panthers put it away with 10 points in the final 13 seconds of the first half to take a 17-3 lead.

Jarrett, the disappointing 2007 second-round pick, was active only because Steve Smith broke his left forearm a week earlier. But Jarrett had a leaping fourth-down catch, then caught a 30-yard touchdown -- his first as a pro -- to put the Panthers up 14-3.

Courtney Roby then fumbled the kickoff return, Dante Wesley recovered and John Kasay's 41-yard field goal on the final play put Fox's Panthers in command.

"I don't want to play for anybody else," linebacker Jon Beason said of Fox.

The second half resembled a preseason game -- with the 30-degree temperature at kickoff the exception. Backup Lynell Hamilton's 1-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter was the Saints' only TD.

Brunell, making his first start since 2006 in Washington, was 15 of 29 for 102 yards and an interception as the Saints became the first No. 1 seed to enter the playoffs on a three-game skid.

Game notes
It was the coldest home game in team history for the Panthers. ... Saints CB Jabari Greer played some after missing seven games with a sports hernia. ... Beason had eight tackles to finish with 164, breaking his own team record. "Be better, because apparently I'm not good enough," Beason said, referring to his Pro Bowl snub.

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