"My goal was just to come back and finish," Davis said. "When I got out there, I didn't say anything in the huddle. They told me, 'Let's get it."'
Davis, who finished with 159 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run, headed to the locker room with the Panthers leading 19-10 late in the fourth quarter.
The Saints (1-4) cut it to 19-13 on John Carney's 26-yard field goal with 1:43 to play, and Carolina needed one last first down to close the win.
The Panthers knew it was time for Davis.
"We needed a first down, so I looked at Stephen and told him to 'Go get it, let's finish it here,"' quarterback Jake Delhomme said.
Davis gained the final 10 yards on three straight runs. When he gained the first down on his 30th carry of the game -- allowing Delhomme to take a knee on the final two plays -- Delhomme excitedly pounded on his teammates' helmets to celebrate the win.
"Stephen Davis is the best thing that has ever happened to this football team," safety Mike Minter said. "Never before have we had a running back who could just grind the game out for us, and it's a pleasure watching him seal it for us from the sidelines."
There's little flash or fanfare to this team, just a steady dose of Davis in every game.
Signed during the offseason, Davis set an NFL record as the first back to pass the 100-yard mark in his first four games with a new team. With 565 yards rushing this season, he also set a record for the most total yards with a new team, besting Ricky Williams' 460 yards in four games with Miami last season.
It was a confidence-building game for the Panthers, who opened last season 3-0 before going on an eight-game losing streak. It was a stat second-year coach John Fox reminded them off all week in emphasizing how important it was to beat New Orleans.
Fox was still cautious after the game.
"It is what it is," he said. "It's still the end of the first quarter ... and we are in a four quarter race."
The injury-riddled Saints, down six starters on defense, lost their third consecutive game but showed marked improvement from last week's 55-21 embarrassing loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
The Saints had 344 yards total offense -- 155 on the ground against a Carolina team that prides itself in stopping the run.
"These guys are not going to give up," coach Jim Haslett said. "I was proud of the effort they gave all week in practice. The extra time they put in, the film work. Everything they did, they stuck tight with it."
Deuce McAllister, who had a stiff back and a slight touch of the flu, ran for 124 yards for the Saints. He also added four catches for 59 yards.
"This is my job and those are my teammates, those are my brothers," McAllister said. "I told them whatever I got, that's what I'm going to give to them."
New Orleans never led, but was still fighting at the end.
Carney's second field goal pulled them within a touchdown late in the game, and the Saints then tried to recover an onside kick. But Carney's kick went out of bounds and the Panthers simply had to hand the ball off to Davis to run out the clock.
Delhomme, a Louisiana native who spent five seasons as the backup in New Orleans before signing with the Panthers in the offseason, finished 15-of-23 for 124 yards.
He said he woke up at 6:05 a.m., too excited about facing his former team to fall back to sleep.
"I was fine all week, then when I woke up and looked at the alarm clock I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,"' he said. "I was ready to play. I had to calm myself down a little bit."
Rod Smart, aka He Hate Me of XFL 'fame,' returns a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. (AP)
|FG||John Kasay 49 Yd, 6:34. Drive: 11 plays, 51 yards in 4:49.|
|FG||John Carney 38 Yd, 13:33. Drive: 8 plays, 63 yards in 4:14.|
|TD||Rod Smart, 100 Yd kick return (John Kasay kick is good), 13:20.|
|TD||Stephen Davis, 1 Yd run (Todd Sauerbrun 2 Pt. Conversion pass to Al Wallace failed), 10:47. Drive: 8 plays, 64 yards in 4:13.|
|TD||Joe Horn, 21 Yd pass from Aaron Brooks (John Carney kick is good), 5:52. Drive: 10 plays, 74 yards in 4:55.|
|FG||John Kasay 23 Yd, 12:42. Drive: 15 plays, 85 yards in 8:10.|
|FG||John Carney 26 Yd, 1:43. Drive: 13 plays, 56 yards in 4:14.|
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