CHARLOTTE – The Thursday night battle for the NFC South division lead between the Panthers and Saints at Bank of America Stadium was a defensive stare down for most of the first half.
But it was the Panthers who blinked first and ultimately lost 28-10.
"We need to stop hurting ourselves. Right now, we're not allowing ourselves the chance to have success," tight end Greg Olsen said. "In this league, what you get is ultimately what you deserve."
With 3:36 remaining in the first half of a scoreless game, Carolina faced third-and-nine from its own 8-yard line. Quarterback Cam Newton tried to avoid the rush but was hit from behind by defensive end Junior Galette, who jarred the ball loose.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton made the recovery for New Orleans at the Panthers' 4-yard line. Two plays later, running back Mark Ingram reached across the goal line for a 3-yard touchdown with 2:38 left before halftime.
"All of a sudden, momentum changes very quickly," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It's very tough to get it stopped."
The Panthers went three-and-out on the ensuing possession and punted. The Saints, who had no timeouts left, go the ball back at their own 15 with an opportunity to add to the lead with 1:49 remaining in the second quarter.
Quarterback Drew Brees converted third-and-10 with a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Kenny Stills and proceeded to complete four more passes for 44 yards.
After being sacked by defensive end Wes Horton on first down and spiking the ball on second down, Brees took a shot to the end zone for wide receiver Robert Meachem on third-and-17 and it paid off. Cornerback Antoine Cason was flagged for pass interference, spotting the ball at the 1-yard line with six seconds left.
"You can't give them freebies," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "You can't let that happen."
Brees fired a quick pass to tight end Jimmy Graham for the 1-yard touchdown, doubling the lead with three seconds left.
The Panthers, who had recorded an interception and a fumble recovery on the Saints' first two possessions, had nothing to show for it and found themselves staring at a 14-0 halftime deficit.
"Our defense gave us every chance to get a lead and play with a lead," Olsen said. "As an offense, it was bad."
But it was a good start to the second half.
The Panthers manufactured a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter and cut the deficit to seven. After being flushed out of the pocket, quarterback Cam Newton sprinted down the sideline and dove for a 10-yard touchdown.
But the Saints responded with a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive of their own. New Orleans converted two third downs while marching downfield to set up fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Brees leaped over the pile and reached the ball across the goal line to give the Saints a 21-7 lead.
"Third downs hurt us the most," cornerback Josh Norman said. "We have to get off the field on defense. You just have to. Everybody has got a hand in it. We all have to be better."
Carolina threatened to cut it to a one-score game early in the fourth quarter, but on first-and-goal from the 6-yard line the Panthers went backwards.
The Saints stuffed a Newton designed run for an 8-yard loss. Newton then threw consecutive incompletions to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, forcing Carolina to settle for a 31-yard Graham Gano field goal.
"First-and-goal at the 6-yard line – you've got to score," Olsen said. "You've got to score a touchdown and give yourself a chance."
The Saints put the game away when Ingram ran for a 3-yard touchdown on their next possession.
"It's not something that somebody has to say that hasn't been said," Newton said. "We've got to be professional about the situation and take responsibility and ownership and hold ourselves accountable to play better."