NEW ORLEANS -- David Carr walked gingerly out of the locker room and bent down slowly, grimacing and holding his back straight as he placed a set of headphones in the pocket of a suitcase.
Simply walking out of the Louisiana Superdome was a struggle once Sunday's game against the Saints ended. But a combination of pain pills, shots, grit and inspiration drawn from his teammates gave Carr enough strength to lead Carolina to a come-from-behind 16-13 victory.
"It was by far the worst pain I've ever felt in my life," Carr said of a first-quarter sack by Will Smith that knocked him out of the game for several possessions. "I felt like I got sat on and then twisted. Every bone in my back popped all the way up to my neck. ... I didn't know, honestly, if I'd ever play again."
He played again all right.
"The hardest part was taking a snap, just getting down in that position," said Carr, making his second straight start for Jake Delhomme, who hurt his throwing elbow. "It was like somebody was stabbing me in the back every time I threw the ball, but I had to do it for these guys. They worked so hard. The defense was playing great. I just felt like they really picked it up and stepped up for me."
Suddenly, Carolina (3-2) was a team of brothers-in-arms, with Panthers veterans saying the way they fought for each other reminded them of their Super Bowl run in 2003. What a change from only a week ago, when defensive tackle Kris Jenkins accused his teammates of having no heart after a lopsided home loss to NFC South-leading Tampa Bay.
"We're a family, man," Jenkins said. "And that's why I had to say what I said. We need to get that winning feeling around here again and that's what we did."
Speaking of needing that "winning feeling."
The Saints (0-4) held the momentum through much of the game and had repeated chances to pull out their first victory. Missed field goals, dropped passes, turnovers and untimely penalties cost them.
"If we continue to make the dumb mistakes, drop as many passes, penalize ourselves on big plays, not take advantage of our field position, then it's hard for the result to change," said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose NFL Coach of the Year award last season now seems like a distant memory. "There's a lot of blame to go around here and it's not just the kicker. There are a handful of positions that we need to evaluate closely and make sure we're playing the right guys."
Olindo Mare, playing through a sore groin, had a 20-yard field goal blocked early in the fourth quarter. And shortly before the 2-minute warning, Mare lined up again from 54 yards with a chance to give the Saints the lead, but missed.
Picked up in a trade from Miami, Mare has now missed four field goals this season. He was 2-for-4 against Carolina.
Mike Karney had the Saints' only touchdown on a short run. Bush had 119 total yards on an array of running and short passing plays. Brees was 29-of-47 for 252 yards and two interceptions, but the second interception was not his fault.
Mike McKenzie's interception of Carr's throw gave the Saints another chance, but they couldn't move the ball, forcing Mare's failed long field goal attempt.
On Carolina's next possession, Smith fought for 4 yards through two tacklers to turn a short catch into a crucial first down, then Kasay drilled the game-winner two plays later.
Panthers players mobbed Kasay at midfield, along the edge of the Saints' fleur-de-lis emblem that is quickly turning from a symbol of civic pride into one of futility.
The Saints were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender, but now their chances of even competing for a playoff spot are extremely slim. Only the 1992 San Diego Chargers have fought back from an 0-4 start to do that since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff system in 1990.
- Mare is now 3-of-7 on field goals this season. Three of his four misses were from beyond 30 yards.
- Saints rookie running back Pierre Thomas, activated because of Deuce McAllister's season-ending knee injury two weeks ago, saw action for the first time in his career. He had four kickoff returns for 100 yards and one rush for 3 yards.
- In addition to his winner, Kasay had field goals of 23 and 35 yards. Kasay likes kicking in the Superdome, where he once made six field goals in a game to help the Panthers beat the Saints in 2004.
- Carr finished 10-of-17 passing for 119 yards.