NFL: Panthers 31, Saints 21

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 31, 2006

By Brett Martel

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees trotted to the sidelines saluting the crowd as the chant “M-V-P” resonated throughout the Louisiana Superdome.

More than five minutes still remained in the first quarter, but a celebration of the Saints’ storybook return to New Orleans — and the playoffs — had already begun.

In a game without postseason implications, the Saints’ regular-season finale against the Carolina Panthers became more of a massive pep rally for New Orleans fans, who on New Year’s Eve had more to cheer about than most would have anticipated a year ago.

That the Saints lost 31-21 on Sunday, playing mostly backups, hardly mattered.

“For these fans and these people, their spirit has been with us the entire time,” said Brees, who’ll take the field again two weeks from now in the second round of the NFC playoffs. “Everything they’ve gone through … for us to be able to come back home and give them what they deserve, that feels good for us, and we just want to turn around and say thank you to them.”

With the revamped Saints (10-6) set to host their first playoff game in the rebuilt Superdome, coach Sean Payton removed a number of starters early in hopes of keeping his club as healthy as possible.

Jake Delhomme and the Panthers’ starters pulled away against the Saints’ reserves, but there would be no booing of the home team this time. Brees, Reggie Bush and numerous other players shook hands and socialized with cheering fans along the edge of the field before finally heading into the locker room.

“For me, after my shoulder injury, a lot of things were up in the air,” Brees said. “Not only did I not know where I was going to be playing football, but I didn’t even know, truthfully … if I was going to be able to play football again.”

The Saints “had that confidence in me and that belief in me,” Brees continued. “The reason I’m here.”

Payton gave running back Deuce McAllister the day off. New Orleans, which was 3-13 last year, will be the second seed in the NFC playoffs.

Bush played little more than a quarter. On defense, New Orleans rested several starters, including Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith.

Carolina (8-8), the preseason favorite in the NFC south, was out of postseason contention by the time they took the field Sunday.

“You usually get what you deserve in this business and we dug ourselves that hole,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “The difference between 10-6 and 8-8 is two games.”

Yet, with a chance to avoid a losing season and sweep the season series against the NFC South champs, the Panthers kept most of their starters in late into the fourth quarter.

Returning from a thumb injury that had kept him out for three games, Delhomme completed his first four passes and hit Steve Smith with a 22-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7.

Delhomme was 23-of-27 for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Smith, who had 85 yards receiving.

The Panthers went ahead 28-14 in the third quarter after Chris Gamble’s 18-yard interception return TD and Delhomme’s 15-yard scoring pass to Smith.

Delhomme, a Louisiana native and former Saint, paused and smiled when asked if he was happy the Saints were playoff bound in their first season back in New Orleans after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

“I’m happy that the Superdome’s back open. I’m happy for things like that, but I mean, let’s be honest, we wanted to win the NFC South, I didn’t want the Saints to win it,” he said.

“I told Drew and Deuce after the game, ‘Hey, go play it. Anybody can win it.’ “