NEW ORLEANS – Carolina had its chances, but the Panthers couldn't keep up with New Orleans' high-powered passing game and suffered a 31-26 loss to the Saints in the NFC Wild Card round.
"You say we had a nemesis - (the Saints) most certainly were our nemesis this year," head coach Ron Rivera said after the Panthers lost the third meeting of the season to New Orleans. "I don't want to take anything away from what they did."
Even after settling for field goals four times over the first three quarters, the Panthers had the ball just outside the red zone with less than a minute remaining with a chance to pull it out. The Panthers had battled back from a 24-12 defecit in the fourth quarter courtesy two Cam Newton passing touchdowns - 14 yards to tight end Greg Olsen and 56 yards to running back Christian McCaffrey.
Newton's offense set up first-and-10 at New Orleans' 21 with 46 seconds remaining in regulation. After an incomplete pass intended for wide receiver Devin Funchess, the Saints forced Newton into an intentional grounding penalty that cost Carolina 13 yards.
"Our quarterback was out of the pocket," Rivera said. "I thought there was a receiver in the vicinity. I thought the ball passed the line of scrimmage. I don't know. It would be nice to get the explanation. I didn't get the explanation."
Newton's second attempt to Funchess on third-and-23 fell incomplete once more, and on fourth down, he was pressured and ultimately sacked, ending Carolina's season.
"Disappointment," Rivera said. "We got an opportunity. I liked what we were doing down the stretch. I thought we had a chance to score on that last drive, and I feel like it was taken away from us."
The Panthers produced 413 total yards, 24 first downs and converted on 47 percent of third downs. Carolina topped the Saints in the majority of statistical categories, but far too often settled for field goals. The Panthers kicked four field goals through the first three quarters while the Saints punched in three touchdowns.
Carolina had its opportunities, but far too often didn't make the most of them.
After the Panthers' defense forced two punts from the Saints on their first two possessions, wide receiver Kaelin Clay dropped a touchdown pass that would've gave the Panthers a 7-0 advantage in the first quarter. Kicker Graham Gano missed the subsequent 25-yard field goal attempt wide right, and within one play of getting the ball back, New Orleans took the lead 7-0.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees connected with former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for an 80-yard touchdown pass and like Ginn, who ran past the Panthers' secondary, New Orleans didn't look back.
"It made a big difference," Rivera said. "They got up on us early and were able to do some of the things they wanted to do. The disappointing thing is that we were able to handle the rushing game, but we gave up too many plays over the top. That was probably the biggest one."
The Panthers traded field goals for touchdowns with the Saints. While Brees tossed two touchdown passes and fullback Zach Line rushed for another in the first half, Gano booted three field goals – 27, 39 and 58 yards – as Carolina finished 0-for-2 from the red zone in the opening half.
"You're not going to win football games if you (kick field goals), especially against a really good football team like this," Rivera said.
AP Photos from Carolina's loss to New Orleans in the NFC Wild Card round.