The Carolina Panthers’ defense had everything it needed to start Thursday night’s 28-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
It got the honor of being announced running out of the tunnel, it took the field first after the kickoff and it was flying around making a collection of big hits for the first time all season.
Then, the Saints’ two-minute drive happened.
From New Orleans’ 15-yard line with 1 minute, 49 seconds left in the second quarter, quarterback Drew Brees got his Saints into the end zone with three seconds left to go into halftime with a 14-0 lead.
Short pass after short pass allowed Brees to get the ball out quickly and avoid Carolina’s pass rush. He got two third-down conversions on the drive to get the only other touchdown the Saints would need.
“You’ve got a guy like Drew Brees and you can’t give him multiple chances to score,” said Carolina rookie safety Tre Boston. “It’s one of those things where he’s a great quarterback, they’re a great offense. We’ve got to play with that energy for four quarters.”
The Saints’ second touchdown was helped immensely by a pass-interference call in the end zone in the final seconds of the half.
On third-and-17 from the Carolina 33, Brees threw up a prayer to Robert Meachum in the end zone. Antoine Cason, statistically one of the worst cover cornersbacks in the league this season, was flagged for pass interference after he got his head around late in trying to break up the pass.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he would have liked to see Cason get his head around more quickly, but fellow cornerback Josh Norman disagreed with the call.
“That was the boost they needed to go in,” Norman said. “It was a play that clearly wasn’t a pass interference. He got his head around and then he knocked the ball away. When the ref goes back and sees the tape he’s going to realize he made a mistake. But at the end of the day, hey, it is what it is. They scored. They went up in the half.”
The 14-0 score wasn’t indicative of how well the defense played in the first half. Former Saint Roman Harper laid a big hit on tight end Benjamin Watson, Thomas Davis put tight end Jimmy Graham on his back and the Panthers created two turnovers.
But after a Cam Newton fumble near the goal line, the Saints got the ball at the 4 and punched it in two plays later for the first points.
In the second half, the Panthers were doomed by third-down conversions. After allowing just two conversions on six attempts in the first half, the Panthers gave up five conversions on seven attempts in the second half.
Now the Panthers sit at 3-5-1, and they haven’t had a win since squeaking one out against the Bears on Oct. 5. They’ve lost control of their division, which is their only realistic chance at making the playoffs this season.
“It’s tough. It really is. Just trying to get that win,” Norman said. “I just think trying to get that win would be a big sigh of relief for us. We’ve just got to keep fighting and keep our focus. We’ve got a long season still ahead of us. We don’t need to doubt ourselves now or tank it. We’re still a good football team, hands down.”