Official team photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Carolina Panthers game on Sunday, December 7, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)
Carolina brought the fight to New Orleans inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a first-quarter scrum beyond the back of the end zone after a short touchdown run serving as a capsulation of its feistiness.
It led to the Panthers dealing the Saints a knockout blow Sunday.
Seven days after New Orleans posted a dominant road victory in Pittsburgh, the Saints themselves were dominated at home in a 41-10 loss, their fourth consecutive home loss this season, the first time that has happened since the 1999 season.
In logistical terms, New Orleans (5-8) remains in the thick of the race for the NFC South Division title. Carolina (4-8-1) trails and Atlanta (5-7) plays on the road against Green Bay at Lambeau Field on Monday night.
Winning out – the remaining schedule has the Saints at Chicago next Monday night, against Atlanta in the Superdome and on the road against Tampa Bay for the finale – will give the Saints the division title.
But with Sunday's performance likely ranking as the worst that the Saints have on this season's resume, the glaring concern for New Orleans was how to correct the errors that have plagued and crippled the team all season, and how to absorb and rebound from a loss that generated the harshest self-analyses the Saints have offered this year.
"Obviously, that's embarrassing, how we played, how we coached," Coach Sean Payton said. "You pick an area or you pick a phase, and it was awful. You're not going to have a chance to win if you turn it over that frequently in the first quarter, if you don't tackle, if you give up almost 300 yards rushing. You name it, check it off.
"Here's the thing I told them. Let's make sure we're crystal clear. There's no question as to why. It's right out there, we just saw it. We've got to look closely at everything – preparation, who we're asking to do it, starting with me. But it isn't a giant mystery. To win in this league, we did all the things that keep you from winning."
Tight end Benjamin Watson, whose 7-yard touchdown catch with 5:29 left provided the Saints with their only entry into the end zone, was equally succinct and perturbed.
"I wouldn't use the word frustrating," Watson said. "I'd use embarrassing. To call yourself a professional football team and play that way at home, that is embarrassing. We are all embarrassed on how we performed.
"Carolina outplayed us from the beginning to the end. They outhit us. They outscored us. We couldn't score on offense. We couldn't stop them on defense. We got outcoached. Anything that could go wrong, went wrong.
"As a professional, I'm embarrassed by the way I performed on national television. This is not how we should play. The scores should never be that lopsided, especially with the talent that we have."
The score turned lopsided early. Carolina took the opening kickoff and used its no-huddle offense to march 80 yards in seven plays, the last being a 9-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Kelvin Benjamin, to take a 7-0 lead just 3:18 into the game.
The Saints fumbled on their second play from scrimmage – a 4-yard pass from Drew Brees to Mark Ingram, with Ingram fumbling – and Carolina defensive tackle Colin Cole recovered at the New Orleans 25-yard line.
Four plays later, Graham Gano kicked a 37-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 10-0 lead. Then, on the Saints' next play from scrimmage, Brees' deep pass intended for Joe Morgan was intercepted by Bene Benwikere at Carolina's 40-yard line.
Five plays later, the Panthers were facing third-and-1 from the Saints' 2-yard line. From there, Newton took a shotgun snap, searched for a soft area along the line of scrimmage and dived, stretching the ball across the goal line for the score with 6:41 left in the first quarter.
Newton's touchdown celebration touched off a scrap; Panthers tight end Brandon Williams was disqualified as a result, and Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton received a personal foul penalty.
"(Newton) was getting in our guys' face and I don't take kindly to that," Lofton explained. "I saw it as disrespect so I did what I thought I had to do."
But Carolina's lead proved solid, and it grew.
New Orleans scored on Shayne Graham's 37-yard field goal with 13:19 left in the first half, but that was as much offensive traction as the Saints had in the first half. The Panthers closed out the half with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Newton to tight end Greg Olsen, to take a 24-3 lead.
A pair of third-quarter touchdowns – a 69-yard run by Jonathan Stewart and a 26-yard pass from Newton to Fozzy Whittaker – gave the Panthers a total turnaround from their 28-10 loss to the Saints on Oct. 30.
Then, Carolina had two turnovers, 231 yards of offense and was pushed around by the Saints. On Sunday the Panthers didn't commit a turnover, posted 497 yards and had a significant time of possession advantage (36 minutes to 24).
Meanwhile, the Saints totaled 310 yards and had just 62 passing yards entering the fourth quarter.
"We got everything we deserved there," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "We did not come out ready to play. We turned the ball over. We could not run the ball. We couldn't stay on schedule. We had no tempo. We got exactly what we deserved.
"I do not understand about not being ready. These are big games for us at this point in the season, so I do not have much to explain that. It is unacceptable. It is embarrassing. At the end of the day, it's on the players. We have to get ready to play."
Brees (29 for 49 for 235 yards) offered one possible solution.
"We need to be more professional," he said. "When I say 'we,' I mean the entire team. Every season you are going to fight adversity at times. You are going to get on a roll and maybe you will drop one or two. It has kind of been a roller-coaster ride.
"Certainly, a loss like that is embarrassing. That's not what we are about. That's never been what we are about."
And the in-house analysis that began Sunday will continue.
"Here is the thing," Payton said, "they're playing for spots. There's no entitlements or securities. That's just a fact.
"We'll look at the tape closely and usually it tells you what you want to see. It's pretty clear, right? That's what we have to do. We can't kid ourselves. That was as poor as it gets. That was bad football."