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Panthers fall in final minute

Posted Oct 9, 2011

CHARLOTTE - Carolina linebacker Jason Williams hates to lose – especially in the fashion the Panthers continue to lose.

"I've always had the philosophy that I'd rather you beat me by 30 than beat me by three," Williams said. "It's heartbreaking."

The heartbreak heightened Sunday with a 30-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium, a last-minute loss for a team that has now dropped four games by less than 30 points total – 22 to be exact.

They've had a chance at the end of every game – a far cry from last season – yet they still have little to show for it.

"We're close, real close. We haven't been out of any game," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We want to get this thing turned around as soon as possible."

The stadium was rocking Sunday, the crowd of 72,678 collectively believing this could be the day when the Panthers scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives to rally from a 23-13 deficit.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees, however, slowly killed the mood. Trailing 27-23, the Saints took possession at their own 11-yard line with 7:06 to play, and Brees patiently directed his offense the length of the field. With 50 seconds to play, he hit running back Pierre Thomas out of the backfield for a 6-yard touchdown that spelled the difference.

"It was just a play here, a play there," said Williams, who took over at linebacker when Omar Gaither left with a knee injury. "That's the tough part of this game – the little stuff hurts you way more than the big stuff. That's what that last drive was.

"We had every chance to stop them and make them punt, but they did a good job of converting on third down. We just couldn't get off the field."

The Panthers (1-4) were the first team to make a comeback. After former Panthers kicker John Kasay booted a 37-yard field goal on the opening drive of the second half to give the Saints a 23-13 edge, the Panthers responded with consecutive touchdown drives that totaled 23 plays, covered 139 yards and consumed 12 minutes of clock time.

On the first one, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton directed the team 80 yards, given a second life by a roughing-the-passer penalty on an incomplete third-down pass. Later, on third-and-8 from the New Orleans 21, Newton spotted wide receiver Brandon LaFell open on the right sideline for a catch-and-run initially ruled a touchdown. An official review set the ball at the 1, but two plays later Newton powered in to make it 23-20.

The defense then set the stage for the go-ahead score, when safety Sherrod Martin swooped in to intercept a high pass off the hands of tight end Jimmy Graham at the Carolina 41. Newton hooked up on a short pass to wide receiver Legedu Naanee that he turned into a 28-yard gain, setting the stage for a 5-yard touchdown toss to tight end Greg Olsen and a 27-23 lead with 12:32 to play.

"Offensively we were doing some really good things, and defensively we were getting into a rhythm and making some things happen. We just had to continue that," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "Unfortunately on the last drive, we had a couple of opportunities defensively, and we couldn't get it done on third down.

"They've definitely got one of the finer quarterbacks in the league with a good group of weapons. You can't cover them all. If you try to pressure him, he finds the guy that you're vacating. If you don't pressure him, he's got time. You have to pick your poison."

The Panthers again proved poisonous to their own cause in the first half, yet they trailed just 20-13 at the break despite giving away 10 points.

On the first offensive snap of the game, Newton looked for wide receiver Steve Smith but instead found Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson, who picked it off at the Panthers' 31-yard line and returned it to the 6, setting up fullback Jed Collins for a 1-yard touchdown catch.

"It was my fault. Smitty did an excellent job of running his route," said Newton, who recovered to complete 16-of-31 pass for 224 yards with two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. "That was unbelievable to start the game giving them seven points, but we battled back."

After the Saints extended their lead to 10-0, Newton did find Smith – on a remarkable touchdown play. On third down from near midfield, Newton stepped up to avoid the rush and zinged one for Smith, who leaped and outbattled cornerback Jabari Greer for the ball at the New Orleans 30, coming down with it and coasting to a 54-yard touchdown.

Robinson blocked the PAT, but the Panthers still trimmed their deficit to 10-6.

"You've always got to stay alive with Cam – he relies on me, I rely on him," Smith said. "He put the ball in a place where he expects me to go get it, and that's what happened. I came down with it and took off."

The Saints answered in the second quarter with a 14-play 86-yard march that consumed more than eight minutes, capped by a 1-yard run by Mark Ingram for a 17-6 lead with 5:27 left in the half.

Carolina wasted little time responding. Newton faked a handoff to the right and instead flipped the ball back to the left for running back DeAngelo Williams, who avoided multiple obstacles down the sideline on his way to a 69-yard touchdown to make it 17-13.

Williams recorded his first 100-yard rushing day of the season, finishing with 115 yards on nine carries.

The half ended on a sour note. It looked like the Saints might not have time get off a field goal attempt after running back Darren Sproles was brought down inbounds at the Carolina 28 with 12 seconds left and no timeouts, but the Panthers called timeout with two seconds left, allowing the Saints to gather themselves for a 46-yard field goal from Kasay and a 20-13 lead.

"We were running guys on and they were running guys off. Truthfully, I overthought it," Rivera said. "I wasn't sure if we had 11, 12, 13 guys out there, so I called the timeout. The last thing we needed was to have 13 guys on the field and give them another chance, so that's why I called it.

"That's squarely on me. Those three points are right on my shoulders."

And once again, three points qualified as a lot in a Panthers game.

"Our guys played hard, did a lot of good things. We had opportunities but unfortunately we didn't come out on top," Rivera said. "At some point, it's going to turn around. Some people might not believe me, but believe me that when it turns around, you better watch out."