<span>Charlotte – The NFC's top-seeded New Orleans Saints rested handfuls of players, including Pro Bowlers QB Drew Brees, LB Jonathan Vilma, S Darren Sharper, as well as such notable players such as TE Jeremy Shockey in an effort to get as healthy as possible during the team's final game of the season and into the bye week. As such, the Saints dropped their final regular season game of the season to the [Carolina Panthers](http://www.panthers.com), 23-10, in Bank of America Stadium.
The Saints' offense, led by backup QB Mark Brunell, managed 213 yards of offense (111 rushing and 102 passing), while the Panthers were able to gain 327 yards (178 rushing and 149 passing). The Panthers improved to 8-8 while the Saints, at 13-3, earned the best record in team history.
"I thought Thomas Morstead was outstanding and the defense held its own," said head Coach Sean Payton. "It was the cleanest game but we fit the run well after that big run early in the game. The key right now is for us to get ourselves physically refreshed and ready to play on the postseason."
RB Jonathan Stewart scored the lone touchdown of the first half on the second play from scrimmage, bolting 67-yards to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead. Saints kicker Garrett Hartley hit a 35-yard field goal early in the second quarter that made the score 7-3. Carolina struck late in the first half with a 90-yard scoring drive that was capped off by a 30-yard touchdown pass from QB Matt Moore to WR Dewayne Jarrett that made the score 14-3. Panthers kicker John Kasay converted a late fumble on a kickoff by the Saints into a 41-yard field goal as time expired, extending the Panthers' lead to 17-3. Kasay then hit a 39-yard field goal in the middle of the third quarter, giving the Panthers a 20-3 lead and followed it up three minutes later with a 37-yard field goal that made the score 23-3. RB Lynell Hamilton scored the Saints' first touchdown of the day on a one-yard run late in the third quarter, ending an 11-play, 64-yard drive, which made the score 23-10.
Carolina accepted the opening kickoff and started at their own 32 yard line. RB Jonathan Stewart took the opening handoff of the game and picked up one yard before being stopped by S Roman Harper. On the next play, Stewart took another handoff and started to his left before cutting back behind his offensive line and catching a Saints linebacker caught up in traffic and raced 67 yards for a touchdown. Following kicker John Kasay's extra point the Panthers led 7-0 after just :52 had elapsed.
New Orleans started their first drive at their own 36. QB Mark Brunell completed his first pass of the game to WR Marques Colston for a three-yard gain. RB Mike Bell then added a yard on the ground before being stopped by LB Jon Beason on second down. On third down Brunell was hurried by DE Everette Brown and threw incomplete. P Thomas Morstead came in and boomed a 51-yard punt that was fielded by return man Captain Munnerlyn and immediately dropped by a big open field hit at the Carolina by WR Courtney Roby.
Harper stopped Stewart for no gain on first down but picked up nine yards on a second down carry. The second-year running back out of Oregon picked up the first down with a two-yard run. QB Matt Moore then completed his first pass of the afternoon with a 14-yard pass to WR Mushin Muhammad. Backup RB Mike Goodson came in and picked up three yards on a first down carry, and Moore's second down pass intended for TE Jeff King, as well as a third down pass intended for Muhammad were both incomplete. P Jason Baker was called upon to try to pin the Saints in their own territory and hit a 42-yard punt that was fair caught by Reggie Bush. The Saints were flagged for a holding call on the play and the ball was spotted at the Saints' 11.
Bell picked up four yards with a run off the left side of the offensive line before being stopped by CB Richard Marshall. On the next play Brunell tried to hit WR Robert Meachem on a long pass down the sideline, but Munnerlyn held up Meachem and was flagged for an illegal contact penalty that moved the ball to the Saints' 20. Bush then powered his way on a 17-yard run to the 37. Brunell hit TE Darnell Dinkins for a four-yard gain on first down and connected on a screen pass to RB Lynell Hamilton for a 10-yard gain and into Carolina territory. Bell once again picked up four yards, this time behind the right side of the line. Brown then stopped Bell for a five-yard loss. Bush tried his hand at a draw play on third down but was stopped by Marshall for no gain and Morstead came in and hit a 41-yard punt that was downed at the Carolina 9 that was downed by Roby.
Goodson was stopped on consecutive carries by Harper and DT DeMario Pressley. On third down Moore rolled to his right and appeared to lose his footing just as DT Anthony Hargrove reached in and knocked the ball out of his hand and into the end zone, which Hargrove pounced on for his second touchdown of the season. The Panthers immediately challenged the ruling on the field, saying that Moore was down before losing possession of the football. After the review it was ruled that a portion of Moore's body was on the ground and that Panthers regained possession on fourth down. Thus Hargrove was credited with his six sack of the season. Baker came on to punt and hit a 41-yard punt that had yardage tacked on when Roby was flagged for an illegal block in the back, which negated Bush's 21-yard punt return.
A first down incompletion by Brunell on a pass intended for Colston was incomplete, Hamilton then picked up three yards on a carry. WR Devery Henderson couldn't hold on to a deep pass down the hash marks on third down and Morstead was called upon to hit a 39-yard punt that was fair caught at the 12.
The Panthers were then stopped on three downs by the Saints' defense and the Saints took over possession at the Saints' 48. Brunell hit Dinkins for a gain of eight yards on the last play of the first quarter. Hamilton then picked up a first down with a four-yard run to the Carolina 40. Bush was then stopped in the backfield by Beason for a one-yard loss on first down, but ripped off a 16-yard run on second down, taking the ball to the Carolina 25. Hamilton then found a crease behind C Jonathan Goodwin for a gain of five yards, and came right back with a three-yard gain on second down. On a third-and-two from the 17 Brunell threw a quick out to Meachem, but the receiver was stopped for no gain and the Saints' coaching staff called on kicker Garrett Hartley to try a 35-yard field goal into the wind, which he converted. The score after the eight play, 35-yard drive was 7-3 in favor of the Panthers.
Beginning at their own 28, the Panthers' Moore tried to hit Muhammad but LB Scott Fujita deflected the pass. Stewart was able to pick up five yards on a second down carry. Moore converted the third down with a 24-yard completion to Muhammad. The two then connected on the next play for a gain of seven yards and Moore made it three completions in a row on a three-yard pass to King. Stewart was stopped by LB Marvin Mitchell for a loss of one-yard on first down and Fujita wrapped up Stewart on second down after a gain of one-yard. A third down screen pass was well defended by the Saints and fell incomplete and the Panthers went for it instead of trying a long field goal attempt. CB Randall Gay bolted in off of a corner and sacked Moore for a loss of seven-yards and the Saints took over at their own 40 with 6:58 left in the first half.
Bell was stopped at the line of scrimmage by LB Na'il Diggs on first down and was also stopped on second down at the same spot. Bush took a handoff and third down and was stopped by Munnerlyn after a gain of three yards. Morstead once again pinned the Panthers deep in their own territory with a 53-yard punt into the wind that was downed at the Panthers' four by LB Jonathan Casillas.
Stewart leaped over a pile of bodies for a four-yard gain on first down and the running back went over the 1,100-yard mark with a seven-yard gain on second down. Stewart continued to carry the load with a four-yard gain on first down, but FB Brad Hoover lost a yard on a second down carry and a third down pass from Moore intended for TE Dante Rosario was high and wide of the mark and Baker came in to punt. Baker hit a 51-yard punt that was fielded by Bush, who returned it 11-yards to the Saints' 42.
Brunell completed a pass to Bell that was stopped for no gain on first down, and then completed a seven-yard pass to TE Tory Humphrey on the final play before the two-minute warning. Brunell tried to hit Meachem but overthrew the receiver on third down, with Morstead hitting a 41-yard punt that was downed at the Carolina 10 by Roby.
Moore threw a quick out to WR Dewayne Jarrett for a gain of 11 yards. CB Jabari Greer was then flagged for an illegal contact infraction while in coverage against Muhammad. Moore and Muhammad teamed up for a gain of 22-yards before Gay and S Chris Reis stopped him. Moore and Muhammad then teamed up for a five-yard completion and to Hoover for a gain of seven yards. On first and second downs the Saints' defense pressured and forced Moore to throw incomplete. Greer stopped Muhammad on third-and-ten after a six-yard completion and the Panthers called their second timeout of the half with the ball on the 35 and facing a fourth-and-four Moore hit a leading Jarrett for a gain of five yards before being upended by S Pierson Prioleau. Following the Panthers' third and final timeout Moore found Jarrett in single coverage against Prioleau down the seam for a 30-yard touchdown pass with just: 13 remaining in the first half. The officials reviewed the play to make sure that Jarrett had possession of the ball and that his knees were not down before crossing the goal line. The ruling on the field was deemed to stand and the Panthers led 14-3 after Kasey's extra point.
Roby returned the ensuing kickoff 21 yards to the Saints' 22 but collided into Priloeau and fumbled the football. He attempted to recover the loose ball but it squirted beneath him and was recovered WR Charly Martin at the Saints' 18. The Panthers sent Kasay on to attempt a 41-yard field goal, which he drilled through the uprights as time expired for the first half, giving the Panthers a 17-3 lead.
After a low, line drive kickoff that was fielded by DE Jeff Charleston and returned to the Saints' 39, Brunell tried to air out a long bomb for Meachem but the pass hung up in the air and was knocked away by Marshall. Bell added five yards on a second down carry but the Saints were unable to convert on third down when Brunell's pass was incomplete. Morstead hit a 40-yard field goal that was spotted at the 11 after a holding call on the Panthers. Prior to the start of the drive the Saints inserted C Nick Leckey, RT Zach Strief and RG Jamar Nesbit into the lineup.
Stewart started the drive with a 26-yard carry and then Moore hit Jarrett on a 21-yard gain on an over-the-shoulder grab. A two-yard gain by Goodson was followed by a five-yard gain by Goodson, but Hargrove disrupted a third-down pass when he deflected the pass and forced it to be incomplete. Baker hit a 31-yard punt that was batted from the one-yard line to the five by S Quinton Teal and downed at the four.
DE Tyler Brayton threw Bell for a three-yard loss on first down, and Brunell's passes on second and third down were incomplete. Morstead hit a 55-yard punt that was fielded by Munnerlyn and returned down the sideline for 31 yards. On the play it appeared that Saints LB Troy Evans was blocked squarely in the back, but the referees didn't throw a penalty flag. The Panthers, starting on the Saints' 25, began with a one-yard run by Stewart on first down before being dropped by Pressley. On second down Hargrove stopped Stewart for a loss of four yards after cleanly beating his blocker. On third down Goodson took a delayed handoff and picked up seven yards before Reis stopped him. Kasay came on to try a 39-yard attempt, which he converted, making the score 20-3 with 8:06 left in the third quarter.
New Orleans began at their own 10 after a holding call on the kickoff return and Bell was slammed to the turf after a gain of one-yard. On second down Brunell fired a pass to Meachem on a slant that picked up 12 yards. However Meachem was stripped of the ball that was recovered at the 27 by the Panthers. Goodson picked up seven yards on a first down carry but was stopped by DT Remi Ayodele on second down. S Chris Reis needed help in getting off the field after the play, but was able to jog to the sideline after being attended to by the team's trainers. On third-and-two from the 19 Hargrove dropped Goodson at the line of scrimmage and the Panthers elected to once again bring Kasay on to attempt a 37-yard field goal, which he converted and extended the Panthers' lead to 23-3.
Bell returned the kickoff 28 yards to the Saints' 36. Brunell hit Hamilton on a checkdown pass that picked up 16 yards and a first down. An incomplete pass greeted the Saints on first down, with Bell picking up seven yards on second down. Hamilton, running out of the wildcat formation, picked up two yards on third down. The Saints converted the fourth-and-one with a 12-yard effort by Hamilton that took the ball to the Carolina 27. On the next play Brunell attempted to hit Meachem in the end zone but Munnerlyn grabbed Meachem by the neck and flung him to the ground, which brought a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the rookie and moved the ball to the 13. Bell then picked up two yards on a carry. Brunell then bootlegged and hit Dinkins for a gain of eight yards and a first down to the Carolina three. Brayton stopped Bell for no gain on first down, and Hamilton added two yards on second down to the one. On third-and-goal Hamilton scored his second touchdown of the season on a one-yard run that made the score 23-10 Carolina after Hartley's extra point.
After a touchback on Hartley's kickoff, Goodson managed two yards on first down, with a second down incompletion, but Greer and Casillas stopped Muhammad shy of the first down sticks on a third down completion. Baker nailed a 43-yard punt that was fair caught by Henderson at the New Orleans 28.
Bell started the drive with a one-yard run on first down. On second down Brunell and Meachem nearly hooked up on a long bomb but the pass sailed just beyond the receiver's fingertips. Hamilton took a draw on third down and picked up seven yards and Morstead came in and smacked a 50-yard punt that was fielded by Munnerlyn, who was promptly dropped with a crushing hit by Casillas at the Carolina 14.
Fullback Brad Hoover took a handoff and picked up two yards on first down, followed by a two-yard run out of the wildcat formation on second down. The Panthers were stopped on third down when Casillas and Hargrove stopped Hoover after a two-yard gain. Baker hammered a driving 52-yard punt that was fair caught by Henderson at the Saints' 27 with 10:24 left in the game.
Bell was stopped by Diggs for a loss of two-yards on first down and Brunell hit FB Kyle Eckel for a gain of six yards on second down. Hamilton, with a nine-yard run on third down picked up the first down, taking the ball to the Saints' 40. Brunell tried to hit Meachem on the ensuing first down but the pass couldn't be completed. Bell then managed two yards but the Saints couldn't pick up the third down and Morstead was called upon for the ninth time on the afternoon, and he promptly dropped a 47-yard punt inside the 20, his seventh such punt of the afternoon, with the ball being downed at the Carolina 11.
Hoover picked up three yards on a first down carry and was stopped by Pressley for no gain on second down. Greer dropped Jarrett in his tracks for no gain on a third down reception and Baker came on to punt, with his 44-yard effort being fair caught by Henderson at the Saints' 41 with 5:16 left in the game.
Bell hauled in a pass from Brunell, but was drilled by Beason for a loss of two yards. Hamilton then caught a screen pass from Brunell and picked up a first down with a 12-yard gain. Henderson then made his first reception of the day with an 18-yard completion, which took the ball to the Carolina 31. Bell then smashed over the left side for a gain of nine yards and converted the first down with a two-yard run on second down to the 20. Brunell completed a pass to Dinkins but the tight end was dropped for no gain by DE Julius Peppers at the 20. The Saints took their first timeout of the second half with 2:34 remaining. On second down Brunell's pass intended for Hamilton was intercepted when Peppers reached out and snared the pass. It was the sixth career interception for Peppers and gave the Panthers the football at their own 23.
Goodson picked up six yards on a first down carry, which was the final play before the two-minute warning. Marvin Mitchell stopped Goodson for no gain on second down but Goodson converted the third down with an 11-yard gain on third down. The Panthers then took the victory formation and kneeled on the ball and the clock ran out.
Notes: QB Drew Brees, listed as inactive as the third quarterback, had his streak of 79 starts halted this afternoon. The last time Brees did not start was in 2004 as a member of the San Diego Chargers...other Saints inactives included WR Lance Moore, RB Pierre Thomas, S Usama Young, S Darren Sharper, LB Scott Shanle, TE David Thomas and DT Sedrick Ellis…DE Will Smith was voted by his teammates as a team captain, joining Brees, LB Jonathan Vilma and LB/Special Teams Captain Troy Evans.