Charlotte, N.C. – It took a title-worthy drive by the Carolina Panthers to prevent the New Orleans Saints from winning a division crown, a memorable drive by the home team at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday to negate a drive for the ages by the Saints.
And with it, the Panthers (11-4) posted a 17-13 victory over the Saints (10-5), preventing New Orleans from winning the NFC South Division and claiming the No. 2 playoff seed in the conference.
"The message is positive," Coach Sean Payton said afterward. "We were in position but it didn't happen. We'll bounce back."
Inarguably, the postgame mood was of a different frame than was the mood seven days earlier, after the 27-16 loss in St. Louis. The defeat stung, absolutely, especially given that the Saints were statistically superior to Carolina in almost every way.
"We put ourselves in position to win and we didn't finish it," Payton said.
"It leaves you sick to your stomach," linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
But New Orleans, which finished 3-5 on the road this season, wasn't nearly as disappointed as after the Rams game after playing one of its more complete, balanced road games of the season, the kind that likely would've been good enough on most days, against most opponents.
But because Carolina rose to the challenge and repelled it, the Panthers lead the division race and control their own destiny. With a win Sunday in Atlanta, Carolina will win the division and No. 2 seed. If the Saints beat Tampa Bay in their regular-season finale at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Panthers win in Atlanta, the Saints will claim a wild-card spot for the playoffs.
The Saints were minutes away from the division crown and 2 seed – 6:37, to be exact, which is the time that remained after Drew Brees threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham to give New Orleans a 13-10 lead. It capped an 11-play, 97-yard grind of a march that lasted 5:59.
But it was a lead New Orleans couldn't hold. Each team punted on its next two possessions before Carolina, taking over on its own 35-yard line with 55 seconds left, drove 65 yards in five plays, using just 32 seconds to score the winning touchdown on Cam Newton's 14-yard pass to Domenik Hixson with 23 seconds left.
"You never know in this league," said Graham, who extended his team record with his 15th touchdown reception this season. "You never have the game in hand."
The Saints didn't have it in hand, but had it on the fingertips.
New Orleans outgained Carolina 365-222 and outrushed the Panthers 126-81. The Saints ran 81 plays, to Carolina's 44. They shut out the Panthers on third down (0 for 9) and almost doubled up Carolina on time of possession, 38:48-21:12.
But a turnover led to a Panthers touchdown, they added a field goal after a Saints failed fourth-down attempt off a fake field goal, and Carolina produced one of its best drives of the season to score in 32 seconds against a defense that had forced the Panthers to punt on its previous four possessions, all three-and-outs.
The Saints struck first, just as they'd hoped to, after a scoreless first quarter. New Orleans drove 45 yards in eight plays to take a 3-0 lead on Shayne Graham's 40-yard field goal with 10:49 left in the second quarter, then executed an onside kick (recovered by Ramon Humber at the Saints' 47) and drove 46 yards in seven plays to take a 6-0 lead, on Graham's 24-yard field goal with 7:22 left.
Carolina sandwiched two punts around a Saints punt and New Orleans took possession at its own 32-yard line. But after Brees threw incomplete on first down and hooked up with Graham on a 4-yard pass on second down, he was intercepted by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis at the Saints' 43 with 1:54 left in the half.
On the next play, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams broke free through the middle and ran 43 yards for a touchdown, giving Carolina a 7-6 lead with 1:45 left in the half. The score remained that way until Carolina's first drive of the third quarter, when it drove 44 yards in seven plays and upped its lead to 10-6 on Graham Gano's 40-yard field goal.
Brees (30 for 44 for 281 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions) was intercepted again, the Saints' defense forced the first of its four consecutive three-and-outs, the teams exchanged punts and the Panthers pinned New Orleans at its own 3-yard line after a 57-yard punt.
From there, the Saints constructed a drive as good as any they've had this season.
Rookie running back Khiry Robinson carried for three yards on first down and on second-and-7, Brees threw a pass to a heavily covered Graham that was to the left of Graham, away from the defender but close enough for the 6-foot-7 tight end to reach out, snag it with both hands and run 46 yards to complete the catch-and-run.
With first down at the Carolina 48, the Saints used eight plays – six runs, two passes – to drive to the Carolina 5. From there, on third-and-goal, Brees shuffled a bit, threw a pass high to the short left in the end zone and watched Graham catch it to give New Orleans a 13-10 lead with 6:47 left.
The Saints' defense locked down the Panthers twice more on three-and-outs before Newton finally found a rhythm. From his own 35 with 55 seconds left, he connected with Ted Ginn on a 37-yard pass to the New Orleans 28.
After an incompletion, he threw a 14-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen, then spiked the ball to stop the clock with 28 seconds left. On second-and-14, Newton avoided blitzing Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins by stepping up in the pocket, then fired the game-winner to the diving Hixon with 23 seconds left.
New Orleans took the kickoff and drove from its 20 to the Carolina 46 in 18 seconds, but Brees' desperation pass on the final play was batted down.
Though Brees was sacked a career-high six times, three by Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, he and the Saints were in it at the end, aided significantly by a defense that also produced four sacks and an interception, a first-quarter pick by Jenkins.
"Some of those (sacks) were on me, just (not) getting the ball out," Brees said.
Now, the Saints move on to the season finale. They'll enter it with a perfect home record this season (7-0) and with a better taste in the mouth than they had seven days ago.
"It was disappointing, but not discouraging," Payton said. "We'll be fine if we keep doing that."