When breaking down his team's loss in Sunday's showdown for the NFC South lead, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera could point to a handful of plays.
But Rivera also pointed out that the Saints are a handful.
"Right now they're real difficult to defend," Rivera said after New Orleans racked up 400 yards of total offense on its way to a 31-21 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans' offense in recent years has started (and sometimes stopped) with quarterback Drew Brees, but the future Hall of Famer again took a backseat to backfield mates Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, who combined to score three touchdowns, rush for 145 yards and catch 100 yards worth of Brees passes.
An already difficult task for the Panthers – on the road with some key players out of action – was made more difficult by a myriad of mistakes and bevy of bad breaks. But regardless of how the balance of the game-deciding plays went against the Panthers, the Saints were the better team on this day. As a result they're in the best positon to capture the division title – up one game with four to play, and with the tiebreaker in hand after sweeping the season series.
Carolina entered the game 5-1 on the road, looking to become just the third team in franchise history to win six away from home. The Panthers will have another chance in the season finale in Atlanta, but first they'll try to take advantage of the rare opportunity to play three consecutive home games. The stretch starts with a Week 14 visit by a Vikings team that will arrive at Bank of America Stadium with an NFC-best mark of 10-2.
The Panthers know they must play better than they did against the Saints, and the good news is they know they can. Even Carolina's stout run defense couldn't control a Saints running game that came in clicking, leaving the Panthers to play close to a perfect game if they hoped to pull it out.
Carolina – and the circumstances of the game – were far from perfect.
With tight end Greg Olsen held out to give his surgically repaired/still sore foot another week to strengthen, the offense couldn't string enough drives together. With no Olsen to worry about, the Saints defense focused on recently hot wide receiver Devin Funchess and versatile rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Both landed in the end zone Sunday but were held mostly under wraps otherwise.
With linebackers Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson slowed by injuries, the middle of the field was vulnerable and the Saints running backs were even more dangerous in open space. New Orleans' running game took advantage, as did Brees with his arm when needed.
The Panthers needed some breaks, but more often than not, things broke against them. Already leading 14-7, the Saints forced the Panthers into a losing game of catchup when Carolina punter Michael Palardy dropped the snap to set up New Orleans just 31 yards from the end zone. The Panthers defense didn't allow a first down, but on Julius Peppers' third-down tackle along the sideline, he was called for unnecessary roughness. Three plays later, the Saints were in the end zone and ahead 21-7.
Carolina got back in the game by making its own break when safety Mike Adams punched the ball out of tight end Josh Hill's grasp, setting up McCaffrey's 21-yard score to make it 21-14 at the half. But out of halftime, officials missed an offsides call, and the lack of a flag caught the offensive line off-guard and opened the door for former Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein to force a three-and-out with a sack.
On the subsequent Saints drive, the Panthers appeared to answer with a three-and-out stop of their own, but on a catch short of the first down, Ingram somehow willed his way through multiple defenders to pick up the first down. Five plays later, it was 28-14.
Even with all the breaks that went the Saints' way, the breaks New Orleans made for itself and some uncharacteristic breakdowns by the Panthers, Carolina still had a chance. This Panthers team is built to have a chance every week. What the Panthers do with their upcoming chances will determine whether their season ends December 31 in Atlanta or whether they play into January or even February.
View photos from Carolina's Week 13 loss to New Orleans.