NEW ORLEANS – With Drew Brees rested and ready to fire and the secondary facing him beat up beyond belief, the Carolina Panthers knew they might well need the 41-point output they got their previous two trips to New Orleans.
The Panthers came up three points short of that impressive total.
The Saints did not.
Brees threw for 465 yards and four touchdowns, helping the Saints build a 21-0 lead. The Panthers stormed back to tie the score in the waning minutes, but Will Lutz's 52-yard field goal with 11 seconds left allowed New Orleans to escape with a 41-38 victory.
"They were able to put some points on the board early. We were able to react and claw our way back and put ourselves in position to make it a game," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Because of that, I'm real fired up about what our offense can become. I'm a little concerned about some of the things that happened on the defensive side."
With starting cornerbacks James Bradberry and Robert McClain out with injuries, the Panthers started rookies Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez. Worley didn't finish, going out with a concussion. He was replaced by Teddy Williams, who has seen the large majority of his time on special teams.
Williams recorded his first career interception early in the fourth quarter to put the Panthers in position to continue carving into their deficit, but the defense couldn't come up with the one other play it needed at the end. After Cam Newton's 2-yard touchdown run and his two-point connection with Devin Funchess with 2:58 to go completed the comeback, the Saints took over aiming to avoid coughing up what would have been the biggest comeback in Carolina history.
The defense put Brees and Co. in a third-and-9 situation right off the bat, but Williams couldn't close on running back Travaris Cadet quite quick enough on his catch short of the line to make. Cadet got the 9 yards needed with little to spare, then Brees got rolling again to set up Lutz's kick.
"I just have to put myself in better position. I was trying to keep everything in front of me, but I have to be in better position," Williams said. "Ultimately on third down, you've got to be able to get off the field.
"The dominos just didn't fall our way this time."
That's been the story of the season so far, and the Panthers weren't the only team trying to change the narrative Sunday. The Saints started off 0-3 but had won their previous game and were coming off a bye, while the Panthers returned Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart from injuries and were looking to avoid falling to 1-5 heading into their bye.
Newton and Stewart accounted for all five of Carolina's touchdowns, but they needed even more on this day.
"We can't worry about the defense; that's out of our control. You've got to score when you get the football," center Ryan Kalil said. "The defense has bailed us out before, so it doesn't really matter. Good teams don't get caught up in the emotions of the football game and just strike when it's their time."
The Panthers struck out early before striking back with a vengeance.
Brees directed the Saints offense into the end zone on three of its first four possessions. The first drive was vintage Brees, as he completed 5-of-6 passes for 41 yards, though a non-traditional call got New Orleans in the end zone when tight end Coby Fleener ran it in on fourth-and-1 from the 2 on a sweep after he went in motion and flashed by Brees.
The next drive featured what the Panthers feared most given the condition of their secondary, with Brees hitting Brandin Cooks for an 87-yard score behind Sanchez. The third score was set up by a 59-yard punt return, leaving Brees to direct the offense just 29 yards to make it 21-0 early in the second quarter.
The Panthers offense advanced to the Saints 10 on its subsequent drive before Newton was picked off.
"The first quarter, we obviously didn't move the ball real well, but the second quarter we did. We got a touchdown and a field goal, but we also missed an opportunity down close," tight end Greg Olsen said. "When you start adding up those trips, even though you're moving the ball, that's been the story of our season – self-inflicted wounds.
"At some point it has to change because if it doesn't then at the end of the day you're just standing here saying the same thing and look ridiculous. We scored 38 points. We should have had 50."
The rest of the way, the offense looked like the unit that led the league in scoring last season. Newton followed up a Graham Gano field goal with a 17-yard touchdown strike to Devin Funchess to make it manageable at 24-10 heading to halftime, then Newton hit tight end Ed Dickson for a 1-yard score after the first of what would be three second-half pass interference calls on the Saints near the end zone to make it 24-17.
New Orleans answered right back when Fleener got a 50-yard score on third-and-15 – the Saints excelled on third-and-long all game. From there, the Panthers controlled the action, until the bitter end.
After taking possession with 53 seconds left in the third quarter, Carolina's final three drives produced touchdowns. Stewart scored the first two on his way to an 85-yard day, then Carolina answered another Brees touchdown toss when Newton dove for the pylon from 2 yards out on just his second run of the day with 2:58 left. Funchess' two-point reception – a call necessitated by Gano missing the mark on the previous PAT – tied the score at long last.
Unfortunately, the deadlock didn't last long.
"A lot of teams would have just laid down and been ready to get on the plane to head home. But this team is full of fighters," Williams said. "We're always going to try to dig our way out of holes, but this is the NFL. You can't put yourself in holes like that and let teams get up on you like that."
View game action photos from Carolina's 41-38 loss to New Orleans.