NEW ORLEANS – Minutes after Anthony Hargrove had scooped up the ball, stumbled into the end zone and scored a touchdown, he ran for the wall behind the goal post, attempting to leap into the stands.
He didn’t make it, instead clanging against the wall below the fans celebrating.
Though the celebration might have fallen short, Hargrove and the Saints didn’t.
New Orleans mounted a game-long comeback, overcoming two early Drew Brees turnovers and a strong running attack led by DeAngelo Williams to defeat NFC South rival Carolina 30-20.
“(My) biggest play ever,” Hargrove said. “Just being able to be in position to make a play like that is awesome.”
And in a game of big plays, his might have been the biggest.
With the Saints failing to gain a first down late in the fourth, Thomas Morstead's punt was downed by Courtney Roby at the 2-yard line.
With the Saints clinging to a 23-20 lead and 2:17 left on the clock, Hargrove all but put the game away. He stripped Williams of the ball, fell on it and got into the end zone to give the Saints a 10-point lead.
Reviews of the play showed that he might have been down before entering the end zone, but without any timeouts left, Carolina couldn’t challenge the play.
“The first thing that went through my mind was game over,” Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “I mean, we didn’t have any timeouts left and that was it.”
Regardless, the Saints are 8-0 for the first-time in franchise history, besting the 7-0 start by the 1991 team. New Orleans remains one of two unbeaten in the NFL along with Indianapolis.
Halfway through the season, talk of going undefeated will only increase, especially after coming from behind for the third straight game, this time getting down 17-3 before rallying.
“Anything is possible,” said Brees, whose fumble and interception led to 10 Panthers’ points. “We haven’t talked about it. Not one bit. All we talk about is the next game, next opponent, next challenge.”
The win was the first over Carolina in Louisiana since 2001.
Carolina (3-5) went 8 of 16 on third down and rang up 371 total yards, including 182 on the ground. But as has been the case all season, the Saints’ defense came up big when needed. New Orleans missed out on an interception for the first time all season, but came through with two fumbles that led to 10 points.
Delhomme, who lost his first ever game in the Dome as a starting quarterback, ended the game 17 of 30 for 201 yards. But he had no touchdowns. And Williams finished with 143 yards and two scores on 20 carries, but he also had the costly fumble at the end of the game.
Brees, meanwhile, finished the game 24 of 35 for 330 yards with a touchdown and interception. Robert Meachem had five catches for 98 yards and a score while Devery Henderson finished with 93 yards on three grabs.
Carolina struck quickly, taking a 14-0 lead in the opening eight minutes on a pair of two-play scoring drives. Williams hit his stride almost immediately, darting 66 yards to the end zone on the second play of the game. Then after Tyler Brayton sacked Brees, forcing a fumble that Jon Beason recovered for Carolina, Williams ran in from seven yards out.
And just when it appeared New Orleans would get back in this game, Brees again faltered. After Pierson Prioleau recovered a Jonathan Stewart fumble at the Carolina 16, Brees was intercepted by the Panthers’ Chris Gamble at the 4-yard line.
“I take complete responsibility for the way we came out and played offensively obviously because I turned the ball over twice early,” Brees said. “I’m really disappointed in myself for starting off that way, especially when we’ve emphasized it so much.”
Saints mistakes kept the ensuing Panthers drive alive. Safety Darren Sharper’s late hit out of bounds of Steve Smith allowed Carolina to keep the drive alive. Eight plays later, John Kasay made it 17-3 Carolina.
New Orleans could have cut the Carolina lead to a touchdown in the final minute of the first half, but the Saints couldn’t push the ball into the end zone from the 7. Two passes fell incomplete and a third was batted at the line. Instead, New Orleans settled for a 25-yard Carney field goal and a 17-6 deficit going into halftime.
As has been the case for much of this season, though, the Saints got going in the half it has owned. Brees hit Devery Henderson for a 63-yard pass that got the Saints to Carolina’s 10 and a play later, Pierre Thomas cut upfield and into the end zone. The score cut the Panthers’ lead to 17-13.
“Just made adjustments,” Hargrove said of halftime. “Everybody kind of relaxed and calmed down. Get some Gatorade, a banana or orange. Get energized and get ready to play in the second half.”
Carolina then went on a 19-play, nearly 10-minute drive that ended with a 25-yard Kasay field goal, extending the Panthers’ lead to 20-13.
But just like at Miami, the Saints stuck with the game plan. Six plays after Carolina pushed the lead to a touchdown, Brees hit Robert Meachem for a 54-yard game-tying score.
After stopping the Panthers, New Orleans went on a 13-play drive that culminated in a 40-yard Carney field goal for a 23-20 lead with 4:36 to go.
And that set up just set up the frantic final minutes of another Saints come from behind victory. New Orleans also trailed Miami and Atlanta in the opening halves of those games.
“I’m encouraged with how we’ve been playing,” Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said. “I’m encouraged we’ve been able to win some of these games without playing our best football.”