CHARLOTTE, N.C. –- The path to a home Super Bowl became much tougher Sunday for the New Orleans Saints.
Another game of defensive holes and offensive miscues led to a 35-27 loss for the Saints, putting them in an 0-2 hole for the first time in five seasons.
For the second week in a row, the Saints gave up more than 450 yards of total offense. Carolina ran up 463 yards, including 219 on the ground, and New Orleans allowed the Panthers to convert 6 of 12 third downs.
“Obviously we’re not happy with our results of today – the final score, the outcome,” Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was harried and hurried throughout Sunday’s loss and had his left ankle rolled up at one point. Brees didn’t help things, though, throwing two interceptions, including a pick-six in the first quarter that gave Carolina clear momentum.
Just like in the season opener, the Saints dug a hole too deep to climb out of by the end. Not that they didn’t try.
Brees’ touchdown run with 1:55 to play pulled New Orleans within a touchdown and, with two timeouts in their pocket, the Saints had a chance.
The Saints defense held, giving the ball back to Brees and the offense with 48 seconds to go. But on the second play of the possession, Brees was intercepted by Carolina’s Jon Beason, ending the game.
“It’s difficult, especially since, obviously, expectations are a lot better than that,” Brees said of the 0-2 start. “It’s been two hard-fought games. Unfortunately, we have gotten down in both of them to the point that I feel like we were trying to claw back in the fourth quarter.”
Brees finished the game 31 of 49 for 325 yards, but had two big interceptions to just one touchdown and was all but outplayed by Carolina’s Cam Newton, who was 14 of 20 for 253 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 71 yards and a score.
The Saints’ offense opened the game with a look that seemed to show that the Washington game was an aberration. New Orleans was 3-for-3 on third down and Brees went 6 of 6 for 55 yards on the opening drive as the Saints took an early 7-0 lead on a 1-yard Jimmy Graham touchdown catch.
Defensively, the Saints showed up at the beginning, too. After a 27-yard completion on first down to former LSU standout Brandon LaFell, the Saints defense buckled down. Cam Jordan sacked Carolina’s Cam Newton for a nine-yard loss and the Panthers didn’t recover on the drive.
Yet, a forced pass by Brees on the second play of the ensuing possession ended badly for the quarterback. Rolling to his right, he tried to force a pass to tight end David Thomas. But Carolina safety Charles Godfrey intercepted Brees’ pass, returning it nine yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 7-7.
“I did my job by staying with my man and not losing myself so I stayed on my man and he threw the ball, I broke on it and picked it and I’m thinking about getting into the end zone every time I get the ball in my hands,” Godfrey said.
But Brees followed the drive up like the interception never happened, leading the Saints 76 yards in 10 plays. The drive ended with a 22-yard Garrett Hartley field goal, but could have ended in a touchdown if not for drops at the goal line by Graham and receiver Lance Moore.
The Panthers used the option to get down to the Saints’ 4-yard line on the next possession. But on fourth-and-inches, his pitch to fullback Mike Tolbert was bobbled and recovered by New Orleans’ Jonathan Casillas.
New Orleans pushed its lead to 13-7 on Hartley’s 53-yard field goal.
And then the game careened off path for New Orleans.
It didn’t take long for Carolina to take the lead. A 35-yard completion from Newton to receiver Steve Smith on third-and-15 gave the Panthers possession in Saints territory and three plays later Jonathan Stewart scored on a 17-yard screen pass. Suddenly down 14-13, the Saints never saw the lead again.
“We’ve got to be able to keep the ball in front of us,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “We can’t give up explosive plays. You give up explosive plays in this league, you’re going to lose a lot of games.”
Instead, New Orleans’ first-half deficit only grew. New Orleans was forced to punt after a three-and-out and the Panthers followed with an eight-play, 58-yard scoring drive and a 21-13 lead.
And after trading punts to open the second half, the game resumed the trajectory it took in the second quarter. Carolina drove 80 yards in six plays, punching up a 28-13 lead on a 3-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams.
The Saints defense earned a stop late in the third quarter and the offense earned points not too long after. Brees connected with receiver Marques Colston for 29 yards on third-and-six. Four plays later, Mark Ingram scored on a 1-yard plunge to bring the Saints within 28-20 with 12:53 to play in the game.
Yet, much like happened in the first half, the Panthers answered. Carolina receiver Steve Smith was somehow left uncovered on the first play of the series, hauling in a 66-yard catch.
“For everybody on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person left open but that’s why type of pressure zone read gives us,” Newton said.
New Orleans’ defense couldn’t hold from there and Newton scored on a 5-yard touchdown run.
That only set the Saints up for heartbreak as they couldn’t fight all the way back.
New Orleans now hosts the Kansas City Chiefs, another 0-2 club, with a chance to right the ship.
“We’re going to get it fixed,” Kromer said. “You look at this team in the locker room right now – they’re hurt, they’re down but they’re not out. No one in that locker room is quitting.”