NEW ORLEANS – One more yard, and the Carolina Panthers would have been in reasonable range for a field goal that might have earned them their first victory of the season.
One more step around the corner in search of the needed yardage, and the Panthers might have been lining up for a PAT rather than a pressure-packed field goal.
Instead, the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints -- with an ultra-loud Superdome crowd and a significant experience edge in such situations on their side – offered an emphatic response.
The Panthers advanced to the Saints' 35-yard line in the waning minutes of Sunday's NFC South tussle, but Carolina went backwards on back-to-back plays and fell short, 16-14.
"We were close," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We've just got to get a little closer."
In some ways, the Panthers (0-4) had no business hanging around like they did against the Saints (3-1), but Carolina rendered stats that weighed heavily in favor of New Orleans meaningless by forcing timely turnovers and coming up with equally timely plays on offense.
The defense did yield a 25-yard field goal to John Carney at the end of an 18-play, 86-yard drive that consumed nearly two-thirds of the fourth quarter and gave the Saints the lead, but the offense had enough time to answer.
Regaining possession with 3:55 to play, the Panthers got near midfield via the ground game. Then, facing, fourth and 4 without wide receiver Steve Smith – who was shelved by a second-half ankle injury -- and with the Superdome shaking, rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen scrambled and spotted improvising rookie wide receiver David Gettis along the sideline for a 16-yard gain to temporarily silence the crowd.
DeAngelo Williams, who had given the Panthers their first lead early in the second half with a change-of-direction, 39-yard run on his way to an 86-yard day, gained two tough yards on the next play to advance the ball to the 36.
But, with head coach John Fox targeting at least the 35 for kicker John Kasay, Williams tried another change-of-direction run, finding daylight before Usama Young closed and got just enough shoe leather to trip him up for a 4-yard loss.
Clausen got sacked by Malcolm Jenkins for a 4-yard loss on the next play, and with the clock speeding toward zero and no timeouts left, Clausen couldn't hook up with Dwayne Jarrett on a fourth-and-16 play from the 44.
"Unfortunately we went backwards," Fox said. "We had one case where a player was trying to make a play, and the other case it was good pressure. Then with where we ended up, there weren't a whole lot of options."
Fox said the Panthers' game plan on defense called for preventing Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Co. from racking up big plays, and it worked. New Orleans nearly nickel-and-dimed Carolina to death in the first half, picking up 17 first downs (to four for Carolina) and advancing into at least field goal range on every first-half possession.
But the Panthers held them to a field goal on one drive and did even better on two others, with linebacker James Anderson recovering fumbles on both – at the 1-yard line on the Saints' first drive following a hard hit by safety Sherrod Martin, then at the 21 on a tackle by cornerback Richard Marshall.
"They've got a high-powered offense, so we knew they were going to make some plays. Our job was to keep them out of the end zone," said Anderson, who led the Panthers with 14 tackles. "When you play against the best, you try to step your game up, and I felt like our defense did that today. It's too bad we couldn't come out with a win."
The Panthers defense didn't allow the Saints nearly as many opportunities in the second half, and the Panthers offense found a rhythm.
The first half wasn't efficient for the offense, but thanks to Clausen scrambling and finding running back Jonathan Stewart wide open behind blown coverage for a 55-yard score, New Orleans led just 10-7 at the half.
The Panthers offense had more success in the second half, even with Smith leaving late in the third quarter and not returning. Carolina already had the lead by then, going 80 yards on its first possession of the third quarter.
Gettis had a 21-yard reception on the touchdown drive; tight end Jeff King caught a deflected ball that bounded high in the air on a third down in Saints territory; and on the next play, Williams started out right but quickly cut back left and exploded through a hole for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
The defense answered with a stop, but Captain Munnerlyn fumbled on the ensuing punt return, leading to a Saints field goal. The Panthers quickly gained control of field position with two drives to midfield sandwiched around the Saints' only three-and-out, but Brees still led New Orleans to what proved to be the game-winning field goal.
"We were amped up and ready to go in a tough environment against a great team that does a lot really well," Gross said. "Our defense played great again, our special teams gave us good field position, and I don't think we did terrible on offense.
"We knew it was going to be down to the wire."