Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold celebrates after scoring during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Detroit Lions on Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold celebrates after scoring during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Detroit Lions on Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — First-year Saints coach Dennis Allen appears to have earned himself a second season, thanks in part to his club's current three-game winning streak.

Not that Allen sounds ready to exhale as New Orleans (7-9) prepares to host Carolina (6-10) in the season finale for both teams on Sunday.

The game holds no playoff implications. Just don't tell either coach that it's meaningless.

“Nothing’s meaningless," Allen asserted. "All these things matter.”

When the Saints fell to 4-9 after blowing a late, 13-point lead in a pivotal loss at Tampa Bay a month ago, Allen asked his players to join him on a mission to win their last four games — regardless of the circumstances.

They responded first with a home victory over Atlanta, then won two games under considerably more challenging circumstances.

First came the coldest game in Saints history (8 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff with wind gusts exceeding 20 mph) at Cleveland on Christmas Eve. New Orleans — a dome team from the South — clawed back from a 10-0 deficit to win 17-10. Next came a dominant defensive exhibition in a 20-10 triumph at NFC-leading Philadelphia.

The prospect of ending the season on a four-game winning streak is “big for our team," Allen said. "We said that our goal was to go 4-0. We’ve accomplished three out of those four.”

Interim Panthers head coach Steve Wilks offered no indication that he's inclined to turn the game into an audition for younger, less experienced players.

Like Allen, Wilks aims to go into an already uncertain offseason with another victory on his resume. He is 5-6 since taking over for the fired Matt Rhule and can get to .500 in what could be his final game with the Panthers if owner David Tepper decides to hire a new coach. Tepper already has floated the idea of trying to lure Jim Harbaugh back to the NFL from Michigan, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press.

When asked about his hopes for being retained, Wilks responded, “Right now my focus is just on winning the day."


The Saints likely will have to revisit veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan's contract after this season. A 2011 first-round draft pick, Jordan last week took over the franchise all-time lead in sacks with 115 1/2. He also leads the team in sacks this season with 8 1/2.

He is due nearly $14 million in base salary next season — a big salary-cap hit for a player turning 34. But it sounds like Allen would like to have Jordan back.

“There’s a reason why he’s the franchise leader in sacks,” Allen said. "Sure, a lot of it has to do that he’s big and strong and powerful. He’s got speed. But it’s more about his mental makeup and what’s inside his heart.”


The Panthers' secondary has struggled without starters Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn. In a 30-24 loss to Tampa Bay last week, Carolina allowed Tom Brady to pass for 432 yards and three touchdowns to Mike Evans.

C.J. Henderson and Keith Taylor are expected to remain at cornerback, but veteran Josh Norman also could get snaps. Henderson, a former top-10 overall draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, gave up two of Evans' TDs.

“We just weren’t on the same page on the back end, and we’ve got to communicate better,” Henderson said of the Evans TDs. “But yeah, coming into the game, that was my matchup.”


While the Panthers ran for a franchise-record 320 yards two games ago against Detroit, they were forced to pass last week when the Bucs stuffed the box. Sam Darnold threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns, but had three turnovers — two on fumbles. That ended the fifth-year QB's streak of four straight turnover-free games.

Darnold could be playing this week for his own future; he becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

“It doesn’t matter if it is a free-agent situation coming up,” Darnold said. “It’s all about when I get the opportunity to go out there and play football, I always want to play well.”


Saints rookie offensive tackle Trevor Penning is hopeful he'll have his highest snap count yet on Sunday.

Penning was the Saints' second of two first-round picks last spring. He exhibited a high upside in training camp until a foot injury sidelined him for the first 11 games of this season.

Since his return, he's played primarily as a “jumbo” blocking tight end in run-first formations. But if the Saints want him to compete for a starting role next season, now would be an opportune time to see how he handles more work at the regular tackle spot.

“To end your rookie year on a high note, that's kind of what I'm looking for," Penning said, adding that he aims to "learn some stuff about myself that I do good at, stuff I need to improve on in the offseason.”


AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.


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