CHARLOTTE – With quarterback Drew Brees at the controls of the New Orleans Saints offense, there's always a feeling that it's just a matter of time.
For nearly the entire first half Thursday night, the Panthers managed to fend off the inevitable, turning the Saints away first with timely takeaways, then with downright stingy defense.
But it was a matter of time, and when that time arrived late in the first half, the Panthers weren't in position to counter the impending onslaught.
"We can go down a laundry list of things that we did that put us from 0-0 to 14-0," tight end Greg Olsen said following Carolina's 28-10 loss. "We can't do those things."
Both teams probably felt like they should have headed to the final three minutes of the first half with points already on the scoreboard, but for the Panthers, the zeroes beside their name all around the Bank of America Stadium ribbon boards had to be more demoralizing.
With three starters along the offensive line out with injuries, and still stinging from a 13-9 loss to Seattle four days earlier when the offense didn't score a single touchdown on three drives into the red zone, the Panthers couldn't afford to let golden opportunities again pass them by.
Yet that's what happened. After the defense stopped the Saints' first two marches with turnovers, Carolina's offense advanced the ball to just outside of field goal range. When the defense then forced a three-and-out, the offense again advanced beyond midfield.
But the first two Panthers drives stalled just outside what would constitute a prudent field goal attempt, and the third one ended with a turnover.
"Anytime you play against a good offense like that, you have to take advantage of those opportunities," center Ryan Kalil said. "The defense did an incredible job and gave us a bunch of chances, and we didn't capitalize on offense."
If that wasn't difficult enough to overcome, what happened next put the Panthers in a hole from which they never emerged.
Quarterback Cam Newton's ability to escape the pocket is one of the most dangerous weapons in Carolina's arsenal, but it can occasionally backfire. After the Saints pinned the Panthers following a second consecutive three-and-out, Newton appeared to escape pressure near the goal line but couldn't see linebacker Junior Galette closing from behind. Galette's blindside hit forced a fumble that New Orleans recovered at the 4.
"As a defense, even if the ball is at the 1-yard line, we have the mentality that we can stop them," safety Tre Boston said. "You can say it's hard, but it's been done before."
But the defense couldn't do it this time, and the Saints at long last drew first blood when running back Mark Ingram dove over the goal line from 3 yards out.
Just 2:38 remained in the half, but that's an eternity for Brees and Co. And Brees had the majority of that time to work with after the Panthers offense couldn't come up with a first down, giving the ball back to New Orleans with 1:49 still to go.
That's almost exactly the time Brees needed to move the offense 85 yards. With three seconds left in the half, he hit tight end Jimmy Graham for a 1-yard score.
"There wasn't much time left in the first half and it's 0-0, and we gave them the ball down there and they score," Kalil said. "Then we give it back to them with two minutes to go. You can't do that, especially against a good offense like that."
The Panthers offense did piece together an impressive drive to open the second half and closed the deal this time, with Newton scoring on a remarkable 10-yard scramble.
But it was too little too late against a Saints offense that scored 28 points in the second half of their victory over Green Bay four days earlier. Thursday, they finished with 28 points, but the things that happened before they even scored their first point proved insurmountable from the Panthers' perspective.
"We know we have to be better," Newton said. "We know we are better, simple as that."