This one had blowout written all over it. Though, on the surface, the Saints were ripe for a potential letdown, the fact that the Panthers have owned the Louisiana version of this NFC South rivalry since 2002 seemingly would have been enough to ensure that the home team would drop the hammer on the Panthers.
So, naturally, the Panthers raced to an early lead.
On the second play from scrimmage, DeAngelo Williams bolted 66 yards for a touchdown. Then, after the teams traded punts, Saints quarterback Drew Brees coughed up the ball upon taking a sack. Two plays later, Williams cashed in from seven yards out, pushing the score to 14-0.
As we pointed out at the time, the Saints had the Panthers right where they wanted them.
But it took a while for the Saints to turn the tables. It looked like it would happen fairly quickly, but the next drive petered out inside the Carolina five, forcing New Orleans to settle for a field goal.
Then, the Panthers answered with a field goal of their own, pushing the lead back to 14.
It stayed there until late in the first half, when Brees and the Saints started on their own 17 with 1:43 on the clock and drove as deep as the Carolina seven. Another field goal pushed the score to 17-6.
There remained a vague sense at the half that this one would be different than the game two weeks earlier at Miami, when the Saints fell behind by 21 points before outscoring the Dolphins the rest of the way by 33.
But then, on the third play of the third quarter, Brees found receiver Devery Henderson on a seven-yard pass and a 56-yard run. On the next snap, Pierre Thomas parlayed the field position into a touchdown that, with the extra point, cut the lead to four.
The Panthers didn’t collapse, however, even as the momentum melted away. A 19-play drive that consumed nearly 10 minutes resulted in another field goal, pushing the lead back to seven points, with less than 3:30 to play in the third quarter.
And then it happened. By the end of the quarter, the score was tied, via a 54-yard catch and run to Robert Meachem (yes, he’s still in the league). The Saints had matched the Panthers at 20.
So that was that. Sure, there was still some uncertainty and excitment. The Panthers drove into New Orleans territory before having to punt, and the Saints’ ensuing 13-play march ended in only a field goal. But then Anthony Hargrove came up big — twice — recovering a fumble after the Panthers moved to the Saints’ 43 and, more importantly, scooping up a loose ball inside the Carolina five following a punt and walking it in for the final points of the game.
“The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘game over,’” Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said, per Charles Chandler of the Charlotte Observer. “I mean, we didn’t have any timeouts left and that was it.”
DeAngelo Williams, who committed that final, fateful fumble, was distraught after the game.
“It’s kind of rough to lose this one,” Williams said, per Steve Reed of CarolinaGrowl.com. “This one right here was a tough one, especially in the
manner in how we lost.
“The defense got us the ball back and I commit a turnover. That’s how games are
won and lost and whoever plays throughout the fourth quarter and
whoever makes the least amount of mistakes. I think they made their
plays when it counted and we didn’t.”
“We just have to figure out how to score more points on offense,” tackle Jordan Gross added, per Reed. “That
was an impressive offense we played today and our defense did a great
job. But we need to get more dangerous on offense.”
The defense might need more help, too, given that linebacker Thomas Davis suffered a knee injury that might keep him out for a while.
“We’re hoping that it’s better than he expects it is,” linebacker Na’il
Diggs said. “Right now, we’re just trying to encourage him, to keep it
positive around him. . . . That would be big, to lose one of our ace cards.
He came in with real high expectations this season, and he was playing
well. Right now all we can do is stay optimistic, maybe it’s just a
couple of weeks with an MCL or whatever.”
The outcome spoiled an otherwise great day for the Vikings, whose trio of NFC North rivals lost during Minnesota’s bye week. A defeat by the Saints would have technically placed Minnesota into the top seed in the NFC, given what would have been a superior record in the conference.
Next up for the Saints? Road trips — and presumably easy wins — in St. Louis and Tampa. Then, Thanksgiving weekend finishes with what could be an epic Monday night showdown, as the Patriots come calling at the Superdome.
For the Panthers, a chance to get to .500 after an 0-3 start was squandered.
“No doubt, 3-5 is a lot different than 4-4,” Carolina defensive tackle
Hollis Thomas said, according to Reed. “You keep fighting and try to get out of the
hole, but then you stub your toe and it is back to the drawing board.
It’s still a long season and you can’t let this ruin your season.”
Though this one might not ruin the season, the day of reckoning is coming. Ten wins might be mandatory for a playoff berth in the NFC, and it’ll be very difficult for the Panthers to go 6-2 down the stretch against the likes of the Falcons, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots, Vikings, Giants, and Saints.