The Panthers played a strange game against the Saints on Sunday. The final score makes it look like a potential classic: The Panthers won 44-38. So does the attached statistical story: Drew Brees cleared 5,000 yards on the season, completing 29 of 43 for 396 and four touchdowns. But then one looks more closely and realizes the game was kind of an offense-happy mess. Carolina's receivers averaged 15 yards a catch, despite a gimpy Cam Newton and a cameo from Derek Anderson. New Orleans couldn't tackle the Panthers' rushers, either: Carolina ran it 39 times for 273 yards. The Saints' receivers did just about as well as Carolina's: They had 13.7 yards per reception and four touchdowns. But in a game otherwise filled with sloppy tackling and defensive miscues, the Saints' backs couldn't get anywhere: New Orleans ran it 18 times for 63 yards. Carolina's rush defense was the only defensive unit—on either team—to show up. And that has a lot to do with rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, who, for the second consecutive week, had 13 total tackles.

The Panthers selected Kuechly ninth overall from Boston College and stuck him at outside linebacker. After Jon Beason went on injured reserve in Week 5, Kuechly took over at middle linebacker. He immediately flourished, racking up at least eight tackles a game for the rest of the season. On Sunday, he finished his rookie campaign with a league-leading 164 total tackles, in addition to a sack, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Pro Football Focus, which grades individual players based on watching footage of every play, ranked him as the league's seventh-best inside linebacker, behind the usual royalty (Patrick Willis, Daryl Washington, NaVorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson) and fellow standout rookie Bobby Wagner, of the Seahawks. But Wagner gets to play in front of a great secondary and behind a great line. Kuechly has a little luck—he has to do more—so his individual grade doesn't look quite as great. But advanced stats show the Panthers' performance as a unit is way up. Last year, without Beason, they ranked 32nd in stopping the run. This year, without Beason, they ranked 11th.

And there's hope for the squad as a whole: Charles Johnson might be grossly overpaid, but he's still an above-average pass-rusher. On the other side of the defensive line, Greg Hardy's developing into an excellent end. The secondary hasn't been great, but two rookies started back there. Things could improve further next year, even with Beason's big contract eating up cap space.

After an awful 2-6 start, the Panthers had a surprising 5-3 second half, handling the division-leading Falcons in a Week 14 game where the offense—mostly Newton—went wild on Atlanta, while the defense did just enough to keep the lead. Even with the successful finish, Ron Rivera still might lose his job. If he does, the gig in Carolina becomes the league's most exciting job opening. They're young, mean and on the rise, and they have the 14th overall pick. If their new rookie winds up anything like Newton and Kuechly, Carolina's headed somewhere in 2013.