By BRETT MARTEL , AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Undrafted rookie Kyle Allen passed for 228 yards and two touchdowns before injuring his shoulder, and the Carolina Panthers cruised to a 33-14 victory over a Saints squad looking ahead to the playoffs.
Allen, a third-stringer pressed into service with Cam Newton and backup Taylor Heinicke out, also ran for a short touchdown as Carolina snapped a seven-game slide. He led the Panthers to three TDs and a field goal on the first four drives of his first NFL start. He played until the fourth quarter, when he was hit hard by Saints rookie end Marcus Davenport while releasing an incomplete pass.
Carolina (7-9) led 23-0 at halftime, marking the first time since coach Sean Payton was hired by New Orleans in 2006 that the Saints (13-3) were shut out at home in a first half.
Allen’s touchdowns went for 53 yards to receiver Curtis Samuel and 8 yards to tight end Ian Thomas.
Having already clinched the NFC’s top seed, Payton scratched several healthy offensive starters, including record-setting quarterback Drew Brees and dynamic second-year running back Alvin Kamara.
Brees’ replacement, Teddy Bridgewater, started an NFL game for the first time since the 2015 season. The move gave Bridgewater a chance to rebuild his credentials as a potential NFL starter after missing most of the past two seasons with a career-threating knee injury. He struggled much of the game, however, going 14 of 22 for 118 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The Panthers scored the game’s first two TDs on Allen’s sneak and Cameron Artis-Payne’s 15-yard run, and New Orleans fell behind 30-0 before scoring its first points on Bridgewater’s TD pass to rookie Tre’Quan Smith early in the fourth quarter.
Saints third-string QB Taysom Hill added a 9-yard TD on a read-option run.
The Saints had little at stake other than the opportunity to secure the franchise’s first 14-win regular season. They’ve gone 13-3 three times, all under Payton in 2009, 2011 and this season. The 2009 team won the Super Bowl.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas came in needing 24 yards to break Joe Horn’s single-season franchise mark of 1,399 yards receiving in 2004. Thomas started, but with the Saints’ offense struggling to sustain drives, it took until the first minute of the fourth quarter before Thomas eclipsed Horn’s mark with a 6-yard catch. The Saints were clearly keeping track; numerous teammates congratulated Thomas right after the catch.
With his 22-yard reception in the first quarter — his only reception of the game — Christian McCaffrey became the third running back in NFL history to have 1,500 yards rushing and receiving in his first two NFL seasons combined. He joined Kamara and Herschel Walker.
Panthers: Allen’s injury in the fourth quarter was the only one announced by the Panthers. He was replaced by newly signed reserve Garrett Gilbert, who went 2 for 3 for 40 yards.
Versatile Saints offensive lineman Andrus Peat, who normally starts at left guard but also has played both tackle positions this season, left in the first half with a hand injury. Defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Alex Okafor both received treatment for apparently minor injuries and returned to action until they were subbed out to give reserves more playing time in the second half.
Panthers: Start their offseason with questions surrounding the futures of several prominent players, including defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Thomas Davis, safety Mike Adams and receiver Devin Funchess, who have expiring contracts. Meanwhile, center Ryan Kalil already said he’d retire after the season. Peppers, Davis and Adams are all in their mid-to-late 30s.
Saints: Host their playoff opener in the divisional round on the weekend of Jan. 12-13.
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