NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints were so close to the playoffs -- just one victory away with three chances to get in.
But as they have so often, New Orleans will watch the postseason after blowing all three games.
|Panthers coach John Fox helps his team rally to a 7-9 finish. (AP)|
Atlanta even helped New Orleans by losing to Cleveland, 24-16, but the Saints (9-7) could not take advantage.
"We expected to go to the playoffs at the beginning of the season, the middle of the season and even today," Saints receiver Donte' Stallworth said. "The best team doesn't always win. We found that out a couple of times this season."
After going 5-0 against first-place teams, the Saints were 0-3 against last-place teams in the final three games. New Orleans opened 6-1, only to lose six of its last nine.
"You've got to win the ones you get chances to win," Saints safety Sammy Knight said. "We didn't do that all year."
Carolina (7-9), in last place in the NFC South, snapped a 13-game losing streak in its division. The Panthers were 1-5 this season in the new division after going 0-8 last season in the NFC West.
Carolina shook off a 1-15 season last year to finish with four victories in its last five games.
"That's character," Carolina receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "I've been talking about that the whole season. This team has more character and more togetherness and has gelled so tightly that its an almost eery feeling."
Fans started booing quarterback Aaron Brooks and the Saints' offense early. By the second half, the chants of "We want Jake!" -- calling for backup quarterback Jake Delhomme -- boomed though the Superdome.
"When you play at home, most crowds try to back you and help you win," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "That's what home-field advantage is all about."
The Panthers, with the No. 4 defense overall, held the Saints to 244 yards, 125 yards of them rushing. Deuce McAllister gained 117 yards on 28 carries, the first back to have a 100-yard game against Carolina this season.
Brooks, 12-of-31 for 145 yards, was sacked three times and intercepted twice. The Saints converted just 4 of 17 third downs.
"He's been making mistakes," Cousin said. "When you're at home and the crowd boos, that speaks volumes."
Carolina's offense wasn't much better.
Rodney Peete completed 19 of 30 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted twice and sacked twice. The Panthers converted 3 of 14 third downs. They gained 273 total yards and rushed for 85, with Nick Goings gaining 70 yards on 18 carries.
Tempers flared before the game between some New Orleans and Carolina players. The Panthers' secondary was upset by remarks that Saints receiver Joe Horn made after the first game this season, when he said he saw fear in the eyes of the Panthers.
"I took it serious," Carolina safety Deon Grant said. "It got me excited. It made me want to play. Made me want to just go out and hunt all day."
New Orleans recovered a fumble by Goings on Carolina's 12 in the first quarter. But after a sack of Brooks, a 5-yard run by McAllister and an incomplete pass, the Saints settled for a 30-yard field goal by John Carney to take a 3-0 lead.
New Orleans drove to Carolina's 27 in the second quarter, only to have Jake Reed fumble and Cousin recover. On the next drive by New Orleans, Cousin picked off a pass on the Panthers 22.
The Panthers scored on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Peete to Brad Hoover with 51 seconds left in the first half and took a 7-3 lead into the break.
New Orleans' first drive of the second half went to Carolina's 13 before an 8-yard sack of Brooks pushed the Saints back to the 20. Carney kicked his second field goal, a 38-yarder, to cut the Panthers' lead to 7-6.
Carolina came back quickly, capping its next drive with a 50-yard field goal by Shayne Graham to go up 10-6 with 2:43 left in the third quarter.
- New Orleans held an opponent under 20 points for the first time this season.
- Before his second quarter interception, Brooks had thrown 138 straight passes without being picked off.
- The Saints have lost their final game seven straight seasons.
- Carney tied a franchise record with his 31st field goal of the season.
- Injuries -- Saints: CB Dale Carter, broken forearm, LS Kevin Houser, sprained shoulder.
The Associated Press News Service
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