CHARLOTTE – It's an indisputable fact: The Panthers lost their sixth consecutive game Monday night against the Saints.
That doesn't change the fact that Carolina's defense put together an impassioned, impressive effort against one of the league's elite offenses.
"There are no moral victories in this game, but I'm pleased with the way this team went out and competed. We fought hard going against a dynamic offense," linebacker Thomas Davis said after the Panthers' 12-9 loss. "Those guys have been putting up big numbers week in and week out, and I feel like we did a good job of limiting them to 12."
The defense didn't get quite enough support from the offense in terms of points on the scoreboard, but an offensive player with a lot in common with Davis supported the effort before the game even kicked off.
Center Ryan Kalil announced before the 2018 season that it would be his last.
"Ryan Kalil gave us a speech earlier in the day that got everybody super-excited and motivated. I felt like we used that energy in this game tonight," said Davis, who declined to share any specifics. "Ryan has decided he isn't coming back, and there's a bunch of us that have a lot of uncertainty. We don't know what's going to happen. Next week could be my last game at Bank of America Stadium.
"To think about something like that is extremely tough. That's why you want to win. You want to win every game that you compete and play in, and tonight was no different."
But Monday night was different from a defensive perspective – in a good way. Head coach Ron Rivera agreed it was the most complete effort from the defense all season.
The Saints entered the game ranking second in the NFL with 34.4 points per game, and last year when New Orleans' offense returned to elite levels, the Saints confounded Carolina by averaging 32 points in three victories over the Panthers.
To make Monday's effort even less likely, consider that Carolina had uncharacteristically given up 30.2 points per game over its five-game slide.
"I'm just proud of these guys for continuing to fight," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "We did a good job. Donte (Jackson) and James (Bradberry) made some big plays, and we made a big play there at the end to get the ball back.
"There are still areas we could have played better, but I thought we did a good job."
Jackson and Bradberry got their hands on the football multiple times – Jackson getting the defense on the scoreboard and Bradberry keeping Drew Brees and Co. off the scoreboard. Brees finished with a quarterback rating of 69.1, his lowest mark in more than two years.
The one time the defense allowed the Saints in the end zone, on a lengthy drive given new life by a questionable pass interference call against Jackson, the rookie corner got a little of it back. The Saints capped the drive early in the fourth quarter with Alvin Kamara's 16-yard touchdown run to take their first lead at 12-7. They decided to go for two but instead the Panthers got two when Jackson picked off a Brees pass at the goal line and weaved his way the length of the field.
In that same spot on the field in the closing minutes, the Saints were a yard shy of salting the game away when Bradberry stripped receiver Tommylee Lewis just short of the goal line, turning what was going to be a either a game-ending touchdown or first down into a touchback that gave Carolina one last chance.
"We didn't want to give them anything easy. We didn't want them to score at all," said Bradberry, who also had his first interception of the season in the first half. "Unfortunately, they scored 12. If they don't score, they can't win."
The Panthers didn't let the Saints score touchdowns in a tight first half that set the stage for a tense second half. On back-to-back drives after Carolina had claimed a 7-0 lead, the defense held its ground on Saints marches to force field goals that kept the Panthers in front 7-6 at half and into the fourth quarter.
"We had the mentality that we might bend a little, but we weren't going to break," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We haven't been good in the red zone all year, but I feel like we played our tails off in the red zone this game.
"We had a great game plan going in. Guys bought in. We had a great week of practice. We prepared well. We wanted it."
The winning effort, however, wasn't rewarded with a win.
"We can hold our heads high. We fought well," defensive end Mario Addison said. "But quite frankly I'm tired of saying that every week."