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Carolina Panthers suffer embarrassing letdown at New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS After passing one test after another over the past two months, the Carolina Panthers got a zero Sunday night, failing to show up and getting blasted 31-13, by the New Orleans Saints.

At least this wasn’t the Panthers’ final exam – that should come in the playoffs unless the Panthers sport a holiday hangover that lasts all month. But after eight straight wins, the fact remains that Carolina got embarrassed Sunday and just about every sports fan in America saw it.

The Panthers still have a decided edge in terms of making the playoffs as a wild-card team, which would be their first playoff appearance since 2008. But this defeat means that Carolina’s chances of winning the NFC South and the home playoff game that goes with it have dwindled considerably.

New Orleans (10-3) only needs to win any two of its final three games to clinch the division. Carolina (9-4) would need three straight wins and for New Orleans to go 1-2 in its last three to win the South. The two teams meet again Dec. 22 in Charlotte.

We all knew it was never going to last forever, this Era of Good Feelings that surrounded the Carolina Panthers the past two undefeated months. That’s sports – no one stays hot forever.

But this was a cold bucket of water dumped on your head on a 20-degree night. You’ve heard of a complete team win? This was a complete team loss. It would be difficult to name a single Panther who played well.

The Panthers started out OK, leading 6-0 at the end of the first quarter. And then came a hailstorm inside the raucous Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as New Orleans scored 31 straight points. The game was really decided in the second quarter, when the Saints scored touchdowns on consecutive drives of 80, 86 and 76 yards and the Panthers did nothing.

The game turned out to be mostly about New Orleans’ ability to score touchdowns on its key drives and the Panthers’ inability to do the same. Carolina’s two first-quarter scores were both field goals that had a chance to be more. And then Cam Newton went very quiet – he was not Superman on this night – and the Superdome got very loud.

While New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees was at his absolute best in that decisive second quarter, the Panthers’ defense was at its absolute worst. The Panthers’ defense was ranked No.1 in the NFL entering the game in points allowed and had given up only two first-half touchdowns in 12 games.

New Orleans surpassed that total by itself in game 13. Brees threw three TD passes in a second quarter that ended with New Orleans up, 21-6, at halftime.

They played the second half because they had to, but this one was over by then. New Orleans had the two best players on the field in Brees and wide receiver Marques Colston. Carolina had … well … a good pregame meal?

Panther head coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera also had an off night. The coaching staff’s game plan didn’t work at all, and Rivera didn’t go for it on a fourth down when he should have.

Down 21-6 and facing a fourth-and-6 at the New Orleans 31 early in the third quarter, Rivera disdained the gamble and instead sent Graham Gano out for a 49-yard field-goal attempt.

Gano missed, but that was beside the point. The Panthers needed points and lots of them by then, and a 21-9 deficit would have been nearly as bad as 21-6. The Saints then sped downfield on their next drive, got a field goal, and any lingering doubt to the outcome had been removed.

There certainly is still time to put the pieces back together for Carolina. To do that, though, the Panthers are going to have to learn how to handle New Orleans’ pass rush.

The Panthers’ offense was mostly awful after the first quarter. Newton’s offensive line broke down like a ’76 Ford Pinto and the quarterback never had a completion of more than 20 yards.

The Panthers get a chance at the Saints again at home on Dec. 22. If they plan to avoid another embarrassment, they can’t let the Saints march all over them twice.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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