Saints 16, Panthers 13

Panthers get the boot

Panthers can't stop Saints' late FG march

Turkey day came three days after Thanksgiving for the Carolina Panthers.

That's how they played in an embarrassing 16-13 loss to New Orleans -- like turkeys.

Favored by nine points at home in a game they desperately needed to keep their playoff hopes realistic, the Panthers suffocated themselves with turnovers, penalties and special-teams breakdowns.

Result: They lost to a team that came in with a 15-game losing streak in the NFC West -- a team with the lowest-ranked offense in the NFL starting a quarterback (Billy Joe Hobert) who had been on the roster for only 11 days.

It's a good thing Mike Ditka coaches the Saints and not the Panthers. Can you imagine how volcanic his reaction would have been to a performance like this?

Dom Capers is much calmer than Ditka, but he has rarely looked more miffed.

``It's hard for me to feel good about any phase of our football team today,'' Capers said. ``We had the same problems today that have plagued us all year -- turning the ball over.''

Capers' face was red and his voice shook as he spoke.

``It's very frustrating,'' he said. ``We knew what was on the line.''

Of the games Carolina had remaining, this was supposed to be the easiest. The Panthers were supposed to beat the Saints then hope to win at Dallas on Dec. 8 to set the stage for a potential season-saving game at home against Green Bay on Dec. 14.

The Saints marched all over that scenario Sunday, stomping it into the mushy Ericsson Stadium turf. The defeat dropped the Panthers to 6-7, just one game ahead of the Saints and Atlanta Falcons (5-8) in the NFC West. Who knows where Carolina is headed from here?

``We can't even think about the playoffs right now,'' said linebacker Lamar Lathon. ``We have to think about salvaging our season.''

It's not that the Panthers were inept Sunday. They gained 427 yards, their highest total of the season. But, too often, it was wasted real estate -- especially early.

Carolina committed four first-half turnovers and the Saints capitalized on three of them for 13 points (a touchdown and two field goals).

The Panthers drove to the New Orleans 25 on their second possession, but what happened from there was an omen for the rest of the day.

Wesley Walls' pass interference penalty moved the ball back to the 35. Then, on the next play, quarterback Kerry Collins overthrew Walls and was intercepted by safety Anthony Newman.

Nine plays later, Doug Brien kicked a 50-yard field goal and the Saints led 3-0.

Carolina's offense had the ball for only three plays after that before running back Fred Lane fumbled at the Panthers 41. Winfred Tubbs recovered for New Orleans and the Saints really cashed in that time.

With an assist from the officials, that is.

On first-and-10 from the 41, Hobert threw an 11-yard pass to Randal Hill. Replays indicated that Hill trapped the ball. The officials ruled it a completion, however.

There was no debating the next two plays -- a 20-yard pass from Hobert to tight end Irv Smith and a 10-yard touchdown run by Ray Zellars that put New Orleans ahead 10-0.

A 50-yard run by Lane set up John Kasay's 44-yard field goal, which cut the Saints' lead to 10-3 with 9:45 remaining in the first half.

The Panthers looked ready to tie the score when Collins drove the offense to the New Orleans 27 later in the second quarter, but the opportunity was lost when Collins was intercepted by Saints safety Sammy Knight on an ill-advised screen pass that didn't appear to have an intended receiver.

That would be Collins' final play of the game.

He was taken to the locker room and was diagnosed with a concussion, which apparently occurred when he was hit by defensive lineman La'Roi Glover following his first interception.

Steve Beuerlein threw for 168 yards in relief of Collins, but got the Panthers in the end zone only once in three red-zone chances.

The touchdown came on a 2-yard run by Lane, who finished with 112 yards on 13 carries. The Panthers also got a 31-yard field goal from Kasay with 6:18 remaining to tie the score 13-13.

But what really stood out was the field goal Kasay didn't make. He attempted a 26-yarder late in the third quarter, which normally would be automatic for him.

The kick never had a chance. Saints defensive lineman Darren Mickell came up the middle and blocked it.

Mickell credited teammate Jared Tomich with created an opening in the line for him to go through.

``We had worked on that all year so that I could have room to squeeze inside,'' Mickell said.

The three points the block cost the Panthers were huge.

So was another special teams breakdown in the closing minutes.

With the scored tied 13-13, the Panthers had to punt with barely over a minute remaining from their 48. It was the perfect field position for punter Ken Walter to pin the Saints deep in their territory.

But the Saints' Chris Hewitt zoomed toward Walter and nearly blocked the punt. Walter had to rush the kick and managed only a 15-yarder.

That gave New Orleans the ball at their 37 with 70 seconds left, and the Panthers couldn't stop the Saints.

Zellars ran for 27 yards on three carries and Hobert passed for 9 to set up Doug Brien's game-winning field goal attempt.

Brien made the 45-yarder with just five seconds remaining, which left the Panthers mystified by their surprise loss.

``It's sad,'' said cornerback Eric Davis. ``That's no knock on (the Saints) because they're professionals too, but we had a lot more at stake than them.''

So, Davis was asked, how could the Panthers have played so sloppily knowing how much they needed to win?

``That's what we have to sit down and figure out,'' Davis said. ``And that's a good place to start, with that question: How did this happen?''

The cold reality of the loss was that even an unlikely sweep of the final three games might not be enough to get the Panthers in the playoffs now.

``Our fate,'' said Davis, ``has been taken out of our hands.''

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