Photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Carolina Panthers game. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)
For the second time this season, the New Orleans Saints played the Carolina Panthers as well as any opponent has, to within a play from victory in the final two minutes. And for the second time this season, the Saints came away with nothing to show for it in the win column.
Cam Newton's fifth touchdown pass – a 15-yarder to Jericho Cotchery with 65 seconds left – gave Carolina the final lead and kept the Panthers undefeated this season, courtesy of a 41-38 victory on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Carolina (12-0), which clinched the NFC South Division title for the third consecutive season before the game began, now has won its last 16 regular-season games, while the Saints (4-8) lost their fourth straight.
"Obviously, it's a disappointing loss and it's frustrating," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "They made enough plays in the end, that ended up being the difference."
The Saints, too, made their share of plays.
They forced three turnovers in the first half – an interception and two fumble recoveries, the first of which was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Stephone Anthony to give the Saints a 14-0 lead with 4:04 left in the first.
And defensive tackle Kevin Williams blocked Carolina's extra-point attempt when the Panthers pulled to within 14-13 on Jonathan Stewart's 5-yard run with 1:55 left in the first half; Anthony scooped the blocked kick and returned it for the first defensive two-point conversion in NFL history.
"The ball just seemed to find me today," Anthony said. "I'm extremely blessed and I don't take it for granted. I just made a couple of plays."
And the offense came alive in the second half, after posting just a touchdown in the first and scoring 34 points in the preceding 12 quarters. The Saints scored 22 second-half points – touchdown passes from Drew Brees to Brandin Cooks and Brandon Coleman, a 9-yard run by Mark Ingram and a two-point conversion run by Ingram – to take a 38-34 lead with 5:21 left.
But the Panthers rallied behind Newton, who completed five of eight passes for 63 yards on the game-winning drive, including a 16-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen on fourth-and-4 from the Saints' 46-yard line with 2:09 left.
Newton completed 28 of 41 passes for 331 yards and five touchdowns, with an interception, which helped Carolina hold off the Saints and Brees, who completed 24 of 42 for 282 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception.
"We had a lot of good things happen for us that hadn't been happening. (But losing) sucks," Ingram said.
"It's very disappointing. We got back to .500 (at 4-4), had a chance to do what we wanted to do, and we just haven't gotten it done in the past four weeks. We played a great game and we were looking for that game just to turn our season back around again. We got close and weren't able to make it happen."
Said Brees: "I would say (offensive execution is) better but it's not where we need to be, and it's not near where I know that we can be. We got some key turnovers today defensively, one of them resulted in a touchdown, a couple of them stopped them from getting points. And special teams we got the block, extra-point runback.
"So there were a lot of good things. But still, too many of the little things that inevitably will get you beat. We'll stop drives offensively, we'll continue drives defensively and at the end of the day, we can't allow that to continue to happen if we want to be the type of team we know we can be."
There were glimpses of exactly that, but not enough sustaining power.
Eleven penalties for 104 yards – six of them defensive penalties that led to automatic first downs, three of which were personal fouls and three of which occurred on third down, helping to extend two touchdown drives – were crippling. That helped the Panthers roll up 76 plays and 36 minutes, 34 seconds in time of possession. And a missed field-goal attempt by Kai Forbath (38 yards, wide right) didn't help
"We didn't end up doing enough to win, so that's on us," defensive end Cam Jordan said. "This whole game was on us. Last time we played them over at their house (in a 27-22 loss) was a close game as well, we had plenty of opportunities to capitalize, and we just didn't do enough. Again, that's on us.
"We had a great start, defense was playing awesome. So many guys were having such a great first half and then, as the game went on, we didn't see some calls go our way and again, that is all on us.
"As far as the defense, I was proud of my guys in the first half, I was proud of my guys in the second half. A lot of great things, a lot of great flashes, (but) that's been the plague of this season, a lot of great flashes and there are still a lot of things we don't capitalize on."
Carolina took its first lead, 20-16, on Newton's 13-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn and extended it to 27-16 on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Devin Funchess.
The Saints sliced back and retook the lead on a pair of quick-strike drives; a four-play, 77-yard pop that ended on Bree's 54-yard pass to Cooks, and a four-play, 72-yard flash that ended on Brees' 24-yard pass to Coleman to claim a 31-27 advantage with 14:02 left.
That wasn't the last of the punch, counterpunch.
Carolina climbed back ahead on Newton's 45-yard touchdown pass to Ginn with 11:54 left; the Saints struck back with Ingram's 9-yard run with 5:21 left; and the Panthers finished the scoring with the Newton-to-Cotchery connection with 65 seconds remaining.
New Orleans' final drive began on its 20 after a touchback, and advanced to the 50 with 24 seconds left on a pair of Brees completions to Benjamin Watson (11 yards) and Cooks (19 yards).
But Brees' next three attempts fell incomplete, including a deep pass for Cooks on fourth-and-10 with 15 seconds left, to allow the Panthers to extend their winning streak. The Saints now are assured of their second straight non-winning season. They finished 7-9 last season
"I'm more focused on getting this team to where I know we can be," Brees said. "Let's just put the record aside for a moment. Mathematically, I don't know what the chances are of us making it to the postseason.
"What I care about is, by the end of the season, are we as good of a team as we know we can be? All these things that we have been talking about – the execution, the mistakes, certain things that keep repeating themselves – I'm more concerned about correcting those so we can get to the level that I know we should be playing at."