CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Donte Stallworth stood alone on the sideline, a look of defeat on his face. He had just dropped another pass, this one in the end zone, and he was certain his quarterback would stop looking to him.
Instead, Aaron Brooks gave the rookie a pep talk, then completed a 95-yard drive by throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Stallworth with 31 seconds left for the winning score in the New Orleans Saints' 34-24 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
"He was feeling down, so I went over there and put my arm around him and told him not to worry about it," Brooks said. "The more he tried to fight it, the worse it was going to get. So I told him to forget it and I'd look for him again later."
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The Saints (7-2) matched their best start since 1992 with their fifth straight victory over Carolina (3-6).
The Panthers have lost six straight, but five of those losses have come in the final four minutes.
"It's almost becoming like Groundhog Day," said first-year coach John Fox. "We've had it happen more than enough this year."
Bolstered by the return of Peete - he missed two games with a knee injury -- the Panthers took a late 24-20 lead on his 15-yard touchdown pass to Wesley Walls with 3:31 to play. To reach the end zone, Carolina converted a fourth-and-1 at its 42-yard line.
That gave Carolina confidence to try more big plays. Peete connected on a 42-yard pass that Muhsin Muhammad caught on his back, and Peete found Walls for the touchdown on the next play.
"I would have put my 401(k) and everything else that I have on the fact that our defense would stop them from scoring a touchdown on that last drive," Muhammad said.
But like most of Carolina's recent games -- four of their five losses coming in Sunday were by a combined 10 points -- this one came down to the final minutes.
A block in the back on the kickoff started the Saints at the 5-yard line, and it looked like the Panthers could end the game when Reggie Howard intercepted Brooks on his first pass. But the play was negated when officials called Howard for a push-off, and the Saints kept moving.
"I want to see that call, because it was crazy. They threw the flag very late, and I thought for sure that was the game," said Carolina safety Deon Grant. "Even so, when they lined back up, they still had 80 yards to go, and we could have stopped them."
The Saints benefited from yet another Carolina mistake when Julius Peppers' sack of Brooks was negated because Terry Cousin was called for defensive holding, giving New Orleans a first down.
That's when Stallworth -- who turned 22 Sunday -- came back into the picture.
He'd dropped at least four passes over the course of the game. One of them was in the end zone, when Stallworth was sure he should have caught Brooks' long pass for a first-half touchdown.
"I felt like I was on the verge of having the worst game of my life," Stallworth said. "Then A.B. came up to me and said he wasn't going away from me, he was going to keep coming until I made a play."
Brooks made good on his word with a 38-yard pass to Stallworth to move the ball to the Carolina 10, and the Saints scored two plays later when the two hooked up again for the touchdown.
"We slipped up and let Donte catch it over the middle and take it down to the 10," Peppers said. "It's hard and frustrating when you've got the game and it gets put on the defense's shoulders, and we don't step up and respond."
The Panthers tried to move close enough for a tying field goal, but Peete's attempted pass was fumbled, and Grant picked it up and ran to the end zone.
Peete finished 23-for-40 for 310 yards, with two touchdown passes and an interception.
New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister had his streak of four straight 100-yard rushing games snapped by finishing with just 71. But he scored on touchdown runs of 20 and 4 yards.
Brooks threw for 259 yards and one touchdown.
- New Orleans' Willie Whitehead and Norman Hand were both hit with 15-yard personal fouls for roughing the passer.
- Saints cornerback Dale Carter, back after an eight-game NFL suspension, nearly intercepted Peete in the third quarter, but the ball bounced off his fingers.
- Carolina's Wesley Walls had two catches, giving him 424 for his career, 12th-best in NFL history for tight ends.
The Associated Press News Service
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