National Football League
             === Saints and Panthers both want to finish strong ===
 (Sports Network) - The last time the New Orleans Saints finished a season 8-8,
 they followed up with their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
 Nobody knows what the 2013 season has in store for the Saints, but they would
 like to build momentum by finishing this campaign at .500. They'll try to do
 just that with a third straight victory this Sunday against a Carolina
 Panthers squad looking to post its longest winning streak in four years.
 The Saints reached double-digit win totals in each of their previous three
 campaigns following an 8-8 record in 2008. Of course, New Orleans followed up
 that campaign with a 13-3 regular season in '09 and marched all the way to a
 Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
 New Orleans also won 13 games a season ago before getting bounced out of the
 playoffs, but then came an offseason that saw the franchise lose its head
 coach, Sean Payton, to a season-long suspension due to the well-publicized
 bounty scandal.
 Without Payton, the Saints lost their first four games, including a 35-27
 decision at Carolina on Sept. 16, but went on to win five of their next six to
 spark playoff hopes. However, New Orleans followed with three losses in a row
 to dash those dreams.
 Still, the Saints are making a run at .500 thanks to a 41-0 home win over
 Tampa Bay on Dec. 16 followed with last weekend's 34-31 overtime triumph at
 the Dallas Cowboys.
 New Orleans saw Dallas score 14 points in the final 3:35 of the fourth
 quarter, but the Cowboys failed to score in overtime and Garrett Hartley won
 it with a 20-yard field goal.
 Drew Brees completed 37-of-53 pass attempts for 446 yards with three touchdown
 strikes. Marques Colston caught a season-high 10 passes for 153 yards, while
 Darren Sproles ran for 48 yards while also catching seven passes for 104
 Mark Ingram ran for a touchdown, while wide receiver Lance Moore, running back
 Pierre Thomas and tight end David Thomas all caught touchdown passes.
 "It's big for us," Ingram said of shooting for 8-8. "We had a rough year but
 everybody stayed working hard. Coming to work every day getting better and
 when we come out on Sunday we just try to put forth our best effort and that's
 what everybody's doing."
 Linebacker Curtis Lofton forced and recovered a fumble for the Saints, while
 defensive linemen Tom Johnson and Junior Galette had sacks.
 The Panthers are also hoping to finish the season strong and are on their
 first three-game winning streak since closing out the 2009 campaign with three
 victories in a row.
 Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton survived a tough meeting with the Oakland
 Raiders on Sunday, winning 17-6 in a contest that saw six combined personal
 four calls.
 Newton received one of those flags for arguing with official and he also made
 contract with referee Jerome Boger.
 Newton's maturity has been questioned at times, but was very apologetic
 "I apologized to the referee. What I said was disrespectful," Newton said. "I
 apologized during the game but I would like to do so publicly. It was just in
 the heat of the moment. I apologize again so the next time we see him or the
 next time I see him we'll be on good terms."
 Newton threw for 170 yards with a touchdown pass to Steve Smith and also ran
 for a score. Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly had nine tackles and an
 interception that helped set up a score.
 Carolina outgained Oakland 271-189 and is trying to win four straight for the
 first time since Oct. 19-Nov. 16, 2008.
 The Panthers will also try to sweep their season series with the Saints for
 the first time since 2008. They racked up 219 yards rushing and three scores
 on the ground in the earlier win over the Saints.
 Brees threw for 325 yards with a TD pass and ran for a score, but was also
 picked off twice.
 The win snapped Carolina's four-game slide to New Orleans.
 Sunday will mark the end of what has been an emotional roller coaster for the
 Credit goes to assistant coach Joe Vitt, who filled in for Payton as interim
 head coach after serving his own six-game ban to start the season. Vitt will
 walk off the field with his head high and an unknown future with Payton
 expected back in 2013.
 "I'm not thinking about that now," said Vitt. "We've have our mind on one
 thing and that's winning this football game. We have no long-term strategic
 plans from a coaching standpoint. That's for another day at another time."
 Brees will also wrap another excellent season and is staring at a number of
 possible accolades.
 He leads the NFL with 4,781 passing yards and 39 touchdown passes and set a
 new NFL record by completing 20-plus passes in 51 straight games. Brees is
 also the first player in NFL history to reach 4,500 passing yards in three
 straight seasons and has a shot of becoming the first player to have
 consecutive campaigns of 5,000 yards passing.
 Brees is also one touchdown pass shy of joining Dan Marino as the only
 quarterbacks to have two seasons with 40 or more touchdowns.
 One of Brees' biggest strengths is his ability to spread the ball and the 2012
 version of the Saints is just the second team in league history to have four
 players with at least 60 catches on the season. They join the 1990 Houston
 Brees will keep his eye this weekend on Kuechly, who is making a case for
 Rookie of the Year honors.
 The ninth overall pick of the 2012 draft out of Boston College, Kuechly leads
 the Panthers with 151 tackles and grabbed his second career interception last
 time out.
 Kuechly has helped Carolina post the eighth-ranked defense in the league and
 the club is giving up the fourth-fewest yards per game (301.2) since Week 5.
 "We're just trying to make sure we point him in the right direction now,"
 Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He is a heck of a football player and we
 will continue to coach him up, because believe it or not I think Luke Kuechly
 could be a better football player. I really do. He has that kind of ability.
 He is special."
 Newton is also a special player and continues to grow in the NFL. He has
 passed for 11 touchdowns in his past six games and the only interception in
 that span came last weekend and ended a string of 176 straight attempts
 without a pick.
 His 7,672 passing yards are 202 shy of Peyton Manning for the most over the
 first two seasons of a career.
 The season may end for the Saints and Panthers this Sunday, but both know how
 important it is to finish strong. Just see 2008 for New Orleans.
 "I think how we finish the season, how we start the parameters and how we
 start our offseason affects everything that you do during the season," said
 Vitt. "What you do in the offseason has a direct correlation to what you do
 during the season. I think that we've been able to build the past couple of
 weeks on the character that we have in the locker room."
 That is something the Panthers would like to emulate as they try to build a
 winning foundation in Carolina.
 "I can tell you this, if we want to be the team we know we can be, a playoff
 contender, it's going to have to come down to winning games in November and
 winning games in December," declared Newton. "You see the great teams and they
 do it all the time. We just want to get that in our pedigree moving forward."
 While the Panthers were able to record a home win earlier this season, the
 Saints put a 45-17 hurting on the Panthers at home a season ago. Brees threw
 five touchdown passes, including two to Colston and one to Sproles, while
 Newton was limited to 158 yards passing and 32 on the ground.
 No reason for the Saints to take the foot off the gas this weekend.
 Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Panthers 24
 12/28 09:10:49 ET