Charlotte, N.C. – Improbable transitioned to unlikely, then flirted with shocking before the New Orleans Saints fell short of winning their first game of the season, dropping a 27-22 decision to Carolina on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
It appeared improbable that the Saints (0-3) would so thoroughly challenge the Panthers (3-0) without quarterback Drew Brees, who missed his first game as a Saint due to injury (bruised rotator cuff in his right shoulder).
It appeared unlikely that backup Luke McCown would play, arguably, the best game of his NFL career after not having started a game since 2011. But the Saints took leads of 10-0 in the first half and 16-10 in the third, and nearly shocked Carolina with a late touchdown pass before the Panthers were saved by cornerback Josh Norman's end zone interception with 69 seconds left, preserving their lead.
McCown completed 19 of his first 20 passes as the offense smoothly operated in Brees' absence.
"For his first start, I thought Luke did a real good job," Coach Sean Payton said. "He handled the looks that we were getting, he showed a lot of poise and I was really proud of the way he played.
"Our margin for error isn't that good to overcome some of the miscues that can come up in a game. We've got to look to get those things corrected."
Specifically, the Saints lost the turnover battle 2-0, committed eight penalties (for 55 yards) and surrendered chunk plays of 27, 52 and 55 yards – each of which aided in a Panthers scoring drive.
But also, New Orleans produced several timely stops defensively, and McCown (31 of 38 for 310 yards, and the interception) was coolly efficient as the Saints took the lead and climbed back after falling behind.
"One of the things I wanted to accomplish was to see what I was throwing at, basically," McCown said. "The multitude of fronts that we had prepared for, you want to make sure you're seeing everything right and they came out and did exactly what we thought they were going to do.
"So that allowed us to find a groove throwing the football. Our receivers' running precise, crisp routes with proper timing allows us to get the ball out quick, and that lends itself to completions. Completions lend itself to moving the chains."
Said Payton: "I said during the week that there were a lot of things functionally that he does just like we would do with Drew. We wanted to come in and have the ability to run the football. Early on we had some success running and maybe it wasn't as efficient later in the game, but it set up some of the play-action plays. He handled it well. He did a good job."
McCown tied his single-game high for attempts, surpassed by two his high for completions and came up four yards short of setting a new best for passing yards.
"Luke did a great job," right tackle Zach Strief said. "He was great in the huddle, he was as efficient as he could be. (But) at the end of the day, we didn't score enough points."
The search for several of the sought-after points was short. The Saints took the opening drive of the game and moved from their 20 to Carolina's 18, but gained five yards on third-and-7 and settled for Zach Hocker's 31-yard field goal.
And on Norman's preservation pick, New Orleans took possession with 3:50 left after forcing a punt and drove from its 29 to Carolina's 23. From there, on third-and-6, McCown's deep pass for the right corner of the end zone was intercepted by the leaping Norman with 1:09 left to help the Panthers hold on.
"It was the exact same play that we had run one or maybe two plays earlier to (receiver Marques) Colston on the right side," McCown said. "Josh Norman, their young corner, is a good player, and he's aggressive and he reads well. We felt like we had something on him, that with a particular concept we could get him to settle his feet and (Brandin) Cooksy would run right by him.
"We saw that the play before, I threw it (incomplete) to Colston and I ran over to Sean and said, 'We need to call it again.' He said, 'OK, call it.' It was still a pressure look, (but) Josh being a good player, I think he recognized the error.
"At the moment you felt like we had them on their heels and we want to take a shot, give Cooksy a shot in the corner of the end zone. Norman made a great play on the ball."
The Saints forced Carolina to punt on its first possession, then constructed its best drive of the young season – a 16-play, 94-yard touchdown march that lasted 9:11 and ended on Mark Ingram's 5-yard run.
The 10-0 lead was short-lived as Carolina answered with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to tight end Greg Olsen. Newton (20 of 31 for 315 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception, and seven carries for 33 yards and a touchdown) and Olsen (eight catches for a career-high 134 yards and two touchdowns) particularly were thorns for New Orleans.
"It's tough when you have a dual-threat guy like Cam," said Saints rookie linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha, who registered New Orleans' lone sack. "You've got to make sure he's not scrambling everywhere and you also have to be concerned with how much time he has to throw the ball without leaving our coverage guys out to dry."
Said Payton, of Olsen: "Certainly, the plan coming in was to make sure that we had an idea where he was out there, there are certain routes he runs well. And yet, he was still able to come away with enough big plays."
After the Panthers forced the Saints to punt following New Orleans' third possession, Carolina tied the score on Graham Gano's 20-yard field goal with two seconds left in the half, the conclusion of an 11-play, 79-yard drive that Olsen jump-started with a 52-yard catch-and-run from Newton.
The Saints forced a three-and-out to open the second half, and rookie running back Marcus Murphy muffed the punt but recovered and returned it three yards, to the Saints' 9-yard line. But a penalty by Carolina's Teddy Williams erased the play.
The 15-yard penalty pushed the Panthers back to their 19, Brad Nortman uncorked a 55-yard punt to the Saints' 26 and Murphy made the most of his second chance, returning it 74 yards for his first NFL touchdown.
"It was a big play," Payton said. "It was a 15-yard penalty and we could've taken it from the point of the foul. We just chose to back them up and give our guys another shot at a return.
"It was well-executed and it was good for his confidence, I'm sure, to get the second opportunity."
McCown dropped the PAT snap and the aborted play left New Orleans leading 16-10.
Carolina again responded, this time with a six-play, 83-yard touchdown drive, taking the lead for good on Newton's 11-yard scoring pass to Olsen and the successful PAT.
Ben Watson's fumble ended New Orleans' next drive and led to a 47-yard field goal by Gano and 20-16 Carolina lead with 1:31 left in the third. And after the Saints again were held and forced to punt, Newton engineered a nine-play, 88-yard scoring drive, ending it himself with a 13-yard touchdown run.
The Saints cut the 27-16 deficit to 27-22 with their own bounce-back drive, a 10-play, 80-yarder ending on Khiry Robinson's 2-yard run. The two-point attempt failed, and they couldn't pull to within three.
From there, needing a touchdown to win, the defense forced a punt and the offense maneuvered into position before the turnover ended the Saints' best chance to muscle back ahead.
"We're 0-3 and…there's a couple of little things that, with where we're at, we've got to be able to clean up," Payton said. "Because we're going to play in other close games. Those are the things that have got to get corrected."
"Two turnovers, so you lose the turnover ratio – which we say every week is the No. 1 stat in football, holds true more than anything else," Strief said. "We lost that again, we seem to have a habit of doing that. So I don't know that the margin is too small, but it's certainly tight and we're not doing the things that we need to do to win games."