NFL: Panthers 30, Saints 7
By David Shaw
CHARLOTTE ó By all accounts, Sunday wasn’t the best day to face off against the Carolina Panthers.
One week after being insulted by division rival Tampa Bay, they ran a near-perfect comeback route at sun-drenched Bank of America Stadium.
“We had a lot on our shoulders after getting our tails kicked last week,” left tackle Jordan Gross said after Carolina inflicted a 30-7 wedgie on visiting New Orleans. “We weren’t gonna take that sitting down. We were determined to fix the problem.”
The Panthers (5-2) did so by pitching a complete game and remaining tied for the NFC South lead. Their offense was balanced ó 195 yards passing and a clock-melting 143 on the ground. And their defense, ranked third in the league before kickoff, played with wounded-animal ferocity. It forced two turnovers, relegated Saints’ tailback Reggie Bush to the sideline with a left knee injury and made Drew Brees, the NFL’s second-highest rated quarterback, look downright mortal.
“This isn’t a game we should lose 30-7,” Brees said after passing for 231 yards. “They’re a good team but so are we. They just had a great gameplan and their front seven really got after us. That’s a solid group.”
Meanwhile, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme passed with honors. He completed 14 of 22 attempts and threw second-half touchdowns to wideout Steve Smith and running back DeAngelo Williams.
“The passing game was much better than last week. I’m not sure it could have gotten any worse,” coach John Fox said after the Panthers improved to 4-0 at home. “Today was more of what we’re accustomed to.”
Same goes for a Carolina defense that bent but rarely broke. It halted a New Orleans scoring threat on the 1-yard line in the second period and squelched another drive on the 3 early in the fourth.
“Those were short-yardage situations,” said losing coach Sean Payton. “We didn’t make enough of those plays consistently to keep ourselves in the game. By the time we got to the fourth quarter it was pretty much over.”
The game’s first key play came with the Saints ahead 7-3 and marching near midfield with 12:05 remaining in the first half. Brees completed a pass to Jeremy Shockey, but the rugged tight end fumbled and safety Chris Harris recovered for Carolina. Four plays later, rookie Jonathan Stewart skirted 18 yards off right tackle and into the end zone for his team-leading fifth touchdown of the season.
Smith’s TD reception early in the third quarter cracked the game open. On a fly-and-curl pattern, he outmuscled two New Orleans defenders and made a 39-yard catch, putting the Panthers ahead 20-7. It gave him a franchise-record 47 career touchdowns.
“When they throw into double coverage, you expect to win that battle,” said Saints’ linebacker Jonathan Vilma. “When you don’t, it makes for a long day.”
A day that only grew longer as evening’s shadow blanketed the field. An interception by Ken Lucas set up Williams’ touchdown grab in the third quarter and Jon Kasay’s third field goal ó it capped a 16-play, 88-yard drive that shaved 9:29 off the fourth-period clock ó closed the scoring.
“We haven’t had a drive like that all year,” Gross gushed in the lively postgame locker room. “We felt strong out there. Whenever you can run the ball and control the clock for four quarters, you’ve got to like your chances.”
Brees, for his part, was rather understanding.
“Now we know how they felt last week,” he said after completing a series of TV interviews. “It’s the way we feel now. Hopefully we’ll do what they did and take it out on our next opponent.”
NOTES: The Saints (3-4) suffered their fourth loss in five games. … Bush, a former Heisman Trophy winner out of Southern Cal, was injured returning a punt on the last play of the first half. He didn’t return, but still contributed 55 yards on nine carries. … Carolina scratches included starting offensive linemen Ryan Kalil and Jeff Otah, both out with ankle injuries. … The Panthers play host to Arizona next Sunday.