OFFENSE: Two turnovers – a lost fumble by Drew Breesin the first quarter, and an interception thrown by Brees in the second. Not much more than that needs to be said, because those two turnovers led to 10 points (a 32-yard field goal by Graham Ganoand a 1-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Stewart). And in a game that ended 23-20, those points help cast a shadow that even a 17-point fourth quarter by the Saints could not overcome. For the second consecutive game, turnovers have haunted the Saints (four committed against Denver) and for the season, they now are minus-6 in turnover ratio in their six losses. The offense sputtered in the first half 160 yards, 2 of 7 (29 percent) on third down. Credit Carolina's defense for much of that, because the Panthers are that good. Too, though, credit the Saints for creating some space and rhythm in the second half. They posted 211 yards in the third and fourth quarters and though they only went 2 for 6 on third down in the second half, they mounted touchdown drives of 51 and 76 yards as New Orleans pulled to within 23-20 with 2:52 left. Running back Tim Hightowercarried a heavy workload (12 carries for 69 yards, eight catches for 57), partly due to the fact that Mark Ingram(seven carries for 28 yards, three catches for 47) missed the final quarter-and-a-half due to being in the concussion protocol. But the Saints didn't move the ball effectively in the first half, and the turnovers again proved pivotal.
DEFENSE: There isn't much fault to be found with this group. Carolina scored 23 points; 10 came off turnovers that gave the Panthers a short field (an 18-yard drive for a field goal and a 34-yard drive for a touchdown) and another touchdown came from a short-field touchdown after Carolina blocked a field goal (a 40-yard touchdown right before halftime). But Dannell Ellerbeand Nate Stuparposted sacks, the Saints produced seven quarterback hurries, Cam Newtonthrew incomplete on 19 of his 33 pass attempts (his 14 completions went for 192 yards) and Dennis Allen'sdefense allowed 23 points or less for the fifth consecutive game. The Panthers had just 223 yards of total offense and were 7 of 17 on third-down conversions. The defense wasn't perfect, and Carolina converted a crucial third-and-10 from its 15 on an 18-yard pass from Newton to Kelvin Benjaminwith 2:39 left. But the Saints wouldn't have been in position to win it at the end if the defense hadn't produced one crucial stop after another and hadn't been able to keep the Panthers out of the end zone on several short-field drives. You have to like the way the unit has progressed in the last five games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: There's no way to be nice here, no sugarcoating what happened Thursday night and, unfortunately, what continues to happen with the Saints' special teams. The unit was a liability for the second consecutive week and – for the second consecutive week – had as much a hand in the loss as did the turnovers on offense. After having a point-after touchdown attempt blocked and returned for the game-winning two-point conversion against Denver, rookie kicker Wil Lutzhad his 38-yard field goal attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown just before halftime against the Panthers. A penalty wiped out the touchdown and gave Carolina possession at the Saints' 40; on the first play from there, Newton threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr.to give Carolina a 20-3 lead with 16 seconds left in the half. And that was preceded by this: with the Panthers leading 10-3 after they capitalized by scoring a touchdown after a turnover, Marcus Murphymuffed the ensuing kickoff out of bounds at the Saints' 1-yard line. The Saints went three-and-out on offense and set up Carolina with a short field; the Panthers converted that mistake into a 49-yard field goal by Graham Gano. Saints coach Sean Paytonsaid there will be a deep evaluation of the special teams units over the long weekend; no one will be surprised if there is a shakeup. With an improving defense and an offense that's capable of rallying when it commits turnovers, the kicking game has to hold up its end of the deal. Thursday was the third time New Orleans has had a kick blocked this season (a field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown by the Giants), and the Saints have lost all three games by three points or less.