JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It's the equivalent of painting a masterpiece and then spilling a jar of mustard on it as soon as it's completed. Or like sculpting the next great statue, and then dropping it and seeing it break into a thousand pieces right in front of your eyes.
|A fatigued Donte Stallworth slaps hands with Jerome Pathon after the Saints' miracle score. (Getty Images)|
What a way to go.
Faced with a second-and-10 from their 25 with six seconds left and trailing by seven, the Saints executed one of the most amazing plays in the history of the league, a play that was almost too surreal to believe. It featured three laterals, looked like something from a backyard game of kill the ball carrier and culminated with Jerome Pathon running in for the final 21 yards and a touchdown.
After a video review by referee Gerry Austin, it was ruled that all laterals were legal, seemingly giving the Saints a tying touchdown and 15 more minutes of overtime.
Instead, as players celebrated on the sidelines, veteran kicker John Carney pushed his extra point wide right, setting off a jubilant celebration among the sparse crowd of 49,207 at Alltel Stadium.
"Was that blocked?" Saints tight end Walter Rasby asked a reporter on the sideline.
"Nope, he just missed it," Rasby was told. He then collapsed to the ground, covering his face with his hands.
The unthinkable happened, a missed extra point by a kicker Saints coach Jim Haslett said earlier this year he would trust with his life to make a kick.
"If that were the case, I'd probably be dead," said Haslett.
Said Carney: "I just came out of the kick early and pushed it. There's no excuse for it. As far as kickers are concerned, that's as bad as it gets."
Of Carney's four missed extra points, two were blocked. The last one he actually missed came in 1993 when he was with the San Diego Chargers.
The Saints (7-8) had slim playoff chances anyway, needing a variety of things to occur even if they had won their final two games, but to be eliminated on a missed extra point after such an amazing play made it sting even more.
"That's the greatest play I've been involved with and one of the best I've seen," said Pathon. "But to have that high, and then have that low, makes it so tough to handle."
The Saints were clearly outplayed as Jacksonville's Fred Taylor rushed for a season-high 194 yards, while Deuce McAllister was held to 50 on 21 carries. Yet somehow the Saints were down just by seven late.
After a drive was stalled on a fourth-down incompletion -- one play after a controversial reversal on an interference penalty would have given the Saints a first down at the Jacksonville 1 -- the Saints appeared out of chances. But they held the Jaguars and forced a punt, taking over on their 25 with 11 seconds left. After an incomplete pass, they had one last play.
It turned out to be one of those I-was-there-plays that will be talked about for a long time -- even longer if Carney had made the extra point.
The play from the sideline was "All-go special." The play is designed for four receivers to run vertical routes against cover-two defense, which is vulnerable to that play. Three of those receivers were lined up to the left of quarterback Aaron Brooks, with Donte' Stallworth wide right.
As Brooks took the snap, he pump-faked to get safety Deke Cooper to take a step to the left and fired to a dart to Stallworth, who broke tackles by Fernando Bryant, Cooper and linebacker Akin Adele as he weaved to the 33. He then lateraled to Michael Lewis at the 33, the one lateral on the play that looked close to being forward.
"Nah," Stallworth said. "I knew it was good. My momentum made it look close, but I knew it was good."
Lewis then pitched it to McAllister, who ran it to the 20 before flipping it across the field to Pathon, who ran untouched into the end zone, courtesy of a good block on Hugh Douglas by Brooks.
"I can't take any credit for it," said Pathon. "If anybody should get credit, it's Donte'. He's the one who really made the play. We just anticipated each other's moves. It was a great play."
The Saints had never practiced that version of the play before, but that's to be expected. They had done some lateral work on special teams, but not nearly to that degree.
Nope, this was straight out of sandlot game, which usually don't include extra points. The Saints could only be so lucky.
Haslett said the Jaguars used leverage on all of their kick blocks, including the final point, which should have resulted in a penalty. Instead, a stunned New Orleans team was left wondering what could have been.
"They leveraged every single kick, including the last one," Haslett said. "I guess the league is not going to call it. Maybe it's something we should do."
If the extra point went through, that play would have ranked up there with the "Music City Miracle" the Titans used to win a playoff game in 1999 and the famous game-ending touchdown Cal scored to win the 1982 Stanford-Cal game, a play that ended with players running through the band.
As it is, it's an amazing play made even more amazing by the miss at the end.
For a Saints team trying to get past the Joe Horn cell phone controversy from a week ago, it was another painful loss in a season full of them.
"Can you believe that?" said Haslett. "I can't."
It was this same Gerry Austin crew that cost the Saints a game this season against Carolina with three controversial calls. The league admitted later that the calls were made in error.
So here it was Austin's crew making another controversial call late when they overruled a pass interference penalty. The ruling on the field was that Bryant had interfered with Lewis in the end zone. But the ball was tipped by safety Donovin Darius, although the tip looked as if it came after the penalty.
Austin reviewed it and overruled it, forcing a fourth-down throw by Brooks from the 10 that was batted down by defensive end Paul Spicer. After the game, there was still some question in the Saints locker room as to whether that play was even reversible.
"I've never heard that one before," said Haslett, who said Austin had no real explanation as to why it was overturned.
In the pool report, Austin explained the call.
"When the ball is touched, and the pass interference occurs behind where it's touched, then there is no foul because the ball has been legally touched," Austin said. "After that, interference can not occur by rule. That's what brought about the change."
All it did was set up the dramatic last play, one that won't soon be forgotten in New Orleans, or anywhere else.
"The only thing missing was the band," said Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio. "It was a wild finish."
"Fate is funny," said Pathon. "At that point in time, you think you have a good chance of winning the game, but fate has a funny way of interfering. It's a surreal feeling."
Since this is the Christmas season, liken it to getting that shiny new car for a present and then smashing into a parked neighbor as you take it for a test ride.
There's nobody to blame but you.
John Carney and the Saints know all about that.