There was no last-ditch heave Thursday night, no kick with time expiring or convoluted mishmash of laterals.
No. Instead of any shots down the field, the New Orleans Saints did as they had done all night Thursday against the Carolina Panthers – they checked down, went for the safe option.
And as it had much of the night, it failed.
Michael Thomas collected Drew Brees’ pass along the left sideline with two seconds left in the game, more than half the field away from a score that would have flipped the final result. So he ran, made the most of his situation, but there was never a real chance of Thomas scoring.
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Seconds later he was tackled. The play sealed the score – a 23-20 victory for the Panthers – but really, it did even more. It embodied New Orleans’ passivity all game, an offensive inefficiency that ultimately cost the Saints the game.
“We put ourselves in a hole, clearly in the first half with how we played,” coach Sean Payton said.
The miscues came early and often for New Orleans, starting with a turnover on the game’s first possession. Panthers defensive end Mario Addison flew around the edge and knocked the ball loose from Brees’ outstretched arm less than two minutes in. The ball flopped straight down, between Addison’s knees, and he sat on the ball to recover it.
Minutes later, Graham Gano kicked a 32-yard field goal to give Carolina a 3-0 lead.
Brees and the Saints offense – who entered the game as the No. 1 total and passing offense in the NFL – evened the score at three later in the first quarter, but then fell apart in the second frame.
Most of the damage came in the 10 minutes before halftime, a hazy period that included a Brees interception, multiple three-and-outs, and eventually a blocked field goal that the Panthers turned into a Ted Ginn Jr. touchdown. Carolina’s lead, once just three points, skyrocketed to 17 going into halftime.
“You can’t let it eat you alive,” wide receiver Brandin Cooks said of falling behind. “You’ve got to always remember the next play.”
So the Saints did, or at least they tried to. After another Gano field goal to open the second half made it 23-3, the Saints came storming back. They scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, erasing what had once seemed an insurmountable deficit.
They did it with a litany of screens and gashing runs and the occasional deep shot through traffic, all trademarks of an offense that has proven itself capable of scoring among the league’s best. The Panthers’ defense, with all its improvements the last few weeks, could no longer contain the Saints.
Brandon Coleman caught a touchdown pass, and then Fleener caught another. Wil Lutz, whose second-quarter field goal was blocked, tacked on another three points to help the cause. Suddenly, the Saints offense was humming and purring as it had all season.
“Had we had that type of execution in the first half,” tight end Coby Fleener said, “it would’ve been a different game.”
But it wasn’t a different game. It was this one, when the Saints didn’t trade scoring punches with the Panthers but rather clawed back from the brink of a blowout. Perhaps one fewer turnover, one more third-down conversion would’ve made the difference.
Ultimately it didn’t. The Panthers offense, which has struggled in its own right in recent weeks, ran off just enough off the clock to quash the Saints’ comeback bid. When New Orleans finally got the ball back, it had no timeouts, 14 seconds on the clock, and 86 yards to march to score.
Brees threw a few more of the dinky screens he had all game, still not challenging Carolina’s secondary. He found receivers for short chunks at a time, leading them out of bounds to save every precious second.
Still it wasn’t enough. Thomas’ final catch was no attempt at scoring, but rather a hooded surrender to the inevitability of the loss. The offense, as proficient as it’s been all season, had been smothered, any ingenuity or sparked extinguished by a swelling Panthers defense.
“We needed to score more,” Cooks said, “and we didn’t.”