CHARLOTTE – For the majority of the first half, the Carolina Panthers hung around against the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, looking for one play that might turn their fortunes around.
They're still waiting.
The Panthers either led or were one play away from taking the lead until the final three minutes of the opening half, but the Saints made all the plays and lots for them the rest of the way, pulling away before halftime and running away in the second half for a 34-3 victory at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina's defense gave the team hope early with an interception and kept the game close for a while, but an offense depleted by injuries and depleted of confidence never got going.
"I've had a couple of rock bottoms, but right now we're not very good offensively," head coach John Fox said after the Panthers fell to 1-7. "Losing our quarterback and losing a couple of (running) backs didn't help matters, but whenever you get outgained 416-195, that's kind of what it can look like."
The Panthers lost starting quarterback Matt Moore to a shoulder injury in the second quarter. Starting running back DeAngelo Williams was inactive for the second straight game with a foot injury, and for nearly the entire second half, Mike Goodson was the only available running back after Jonathan Stewart (head) and Tyrell Sutton (ankle) suffered injuries.
Still, the Panthers didn't move the ball before the injuries. Sutton, seeing snaps on offense for the first time this season, accounted for the team's longest offensive play, a 32-yard run. Wide receiver Steve Smith made his lone catch in the closing minutes, and no wide receiver finished with more than two catches.
"Pretty pathetic. That would be the only thing I could say," Smith said. "No explanations. No excuses. Obviously Matt going down early, that hurt us, and it pretty much snowballed from there. Downhill. Full speed."
The Saints ripped off their longest offensive play on the first snap, a 54-yard run by Julius Jones that set them up in the red zone. The Panthers, however, fought back when cornerback Richard Marshall picked off a Drew Brees pass and rambled 66 yards to the New Orleans 28-yard line.
Carolina, however, had to settle for a 20-yard field goal off the foot of John Kasay.
The Panthers wouldn't score again.
"The interception was fun, but I need to score with it. I need to find a way to get the ball in the end zone," Marshall said. "That's what we need to start doing – start scoring on defense."
When the Saints got a takeaway later in the first quarter, on a Stewart fumble that resulted in his injury, the Saints didn't settle, taking a 7-3 lead when Brees hit tight end Jeremy Shockey on third-and-goal from the 7.
Kasay missed a 40-yard field goal on Carolina's next possession – a drive highlighted by Sutton's long run – but the Panthers wouldn't threaten to score again until the waning minutes after rookie quarterback Tony Pike made his regular season debut in place of fellow rookie Jimmy Clausen.
"Tony Pike has not had a rep in the National Football League in the regular season, and there wasn't much fear of a comeback at that point, so it gives him valuable experience," Fox said. "We've got two very young players there that depending on what Matt's status might be our two quarterbacks the rest of the season."
Moore went down on the drive after the missed field goal, a victim of a Sedrick Ellis sack, and Brees went to work.
The Panthers defense came close to a third consecutive three-and-out series, but Brees connected with Marques Colston for 16 yards on a third-and-12. That jumpstarted a 73-yard touchdown drive, capped by tight end Jimmy Graham's 19-yard touchdown for a 14-3 lead just 2:49 before halftime.
Brees then chewed up 70 yards in the final minute of the half for a chip-shot field goal and a 17-3 halftime lead that would grow slowly but surely in the second half as Carolina's offense repeatedly found itself in poor field position and could do nothing about it.
Any prayer for a comeback disappeared when, two plays after Clausen converted the Panthers' first third down all game late in the third quarter, he threw an interception that Jabari Greer returned 24 yards for a touchdown and a 27-3 cushion.
"Definitely the most embarrassing loss of the season," linebacker Jon Beason said. "In 25 years, it's the lowest I've felt. We're not this bad."