Josh Norman saved Panthers' perfect season in first win over Saints

Rivera on Norman's success: We let Josh be Josh (1:32)

Panthers coach Ron Rivera explains on Mike & Mike how Josh Norman became one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. (1:32)

METAIRIE, La. -- It seems like forever ago now, with the Carolina Panthers rolling and the New Orleans Saints reeling.

But 10 weeks ago, the Saints (4-7) had a golden opportunity to knock off the Panthers (11-0) in Carolina -- with backup Luke McCown, no less -- when they made a fatal mistake.

The Saints decided to challenge Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, who has emerged this year as perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL (though the guy who tormented the Saints last week, J.J. Watt, might have a strong rebuttal).

With 1:17 remaining and the Saints trailing 27-22, McCown tried to hit receiver Brandin Cooks in the end zone, but Norman made a sensational, leaping interception in front of Cooks to clinch the win.

“I would say this: There’s not a corner having a better season than he is right now,” Saints coach Sean Payton said of Norman, who has four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

The fourth-year pro would probably have more if teams didn’t ignore him so much. Some weeks this season, he has been targeted zero times or only once. That's especially impressive considering he is usually assigned to shadow top receivers such as DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant and Cooks.

“Shoot, we’ve seen him grow and have seen him over the years,” Payton said of the 6-foot, 195-pounder, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Coastal Carolina in 2012. “He gets matched versus the best receiver each week, and you break the huddle offensively, and he’s meeting that receiver before he gets aligned. He’s ready to go, he’s ready to compete. So certainly, there’s a ton of respect on our part for what he’s been able to do. He’s productive with the ball in the air. He’s physical.

“You can see, it’s kind of infectious when you watch him. You can see his enthusiasm for the game and how he competes. And you have to be spot-on with him.”

The Saints didn't do that in Week 3, when they made the ill-fated decision to try to use Norman’s aggressiveness against him on that third-and-6 play from the Panthers’ 23-yard line.

McCown and Payton explained at the time that they had run the same play two snaps earlier, and it resulted in a dropped pass by Marques Colston. McCown recognized Norman tried to jump on Colston and thought the Saints might be able to catch him doing the same thing while Cooks got behind him.

No such luck.

“He’s a really good cornerback," Cooks said. "He’s a smart player. I feel like he studies tape well. And when you’ve got a smart guy on the field, you’re bound to do some good things.”

When asked if he would like another chance to go one-on-one against Norman with the game on the line Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Cooks said, “I would love that.”

“But I feel like we won’t want to be in that position in the first place,” he added. “We want to put more points on the board than we did that last game.”