CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With less than 35 seconds to play and the Saints nursing a three-point lead, Rob Ryan gambled, sending safety Malcolm Jenkins on a blitz.
The roll of the dice failed, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton hit Domenik Hixon in the end zone for the game-winning score and the Saints now likely must find a way to win three on the road to reach the Super Bowl if they make the playoffs.
New Orleans lost its fifth road game of the season, falling to Carolina 17-13 when the defense couldn’t hold off the Panthers when they absolutely had to.
The Saints’ offense had a chance to ice the game, getting the ball back with 1:57 to play. But they couldn’t get a first down and had to punt back to Carolina.
The Panthers (11-4) then drove 65 yards in five plays without any timeouts in their pocket for the game-winning score.
New Orleans (10-5) needed a win to assure itself of a playoff berth. The Saints can get in with a loss if Arizona loses at San Francisco in the final weekend or if the 49ers lose their final two games.
Should that happen, the Saints would go in as a wild card if Carolina win its season-finale against Atlanta. The Saints could win the No. 2 seed if they win next Sunday and Carolina loses to Atlanta.
If they get in as the wild card, that means starting the playoffs on the road, something the Saints haven’t done well this season. While New Orleans is 7-0 at home, it is 3-5 on the road, losing three straight away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints held Carolina to just 222 total yards and 0-for-9 on third down. Cam Newton was just 13 of 22 for 181 yards on the day. But the New Orleans defense couldn’t hold on when it mattered most.
Meanwhile, the Saints gobbled up 365 total yards, including 126 on the ground, but couldn’t move the ball when it mattered most.
For a time, though, it seemed the Saints had found a way to escape with a win.
With the season on the line, quarterback Drew Brees, who finished 30 of 44 for 281 yards and a touchdown, went with his comfort blanket.
First, he hit tight end Jimmy Graham on first-and-10 from the Saints’ 6 for a 48-yard completion that flipped the field. Then, with New Orleans looking at third-and-five from the Carolina 5, Brees once again went for Graham. The quarterback called an audible at the line and threw high to the tight end, how grasped the ball above Panthers’ defensive back Quintin Mikell.
With 6:37 to play, the Saints regained a lead it lost late in the first half and appeared destined to not get back.
Not that that series ended the game.
After swapping possessions, Carolina punted back to New Orleans with 2:04 to play and never got the ball back.
That’s when the offense failed, setting up the demoralizing final drive.
Sunday proved to be a defensive slugfest early as neither team backed down.
The Saints picked up the first big break on the opening series when Malcolm Jenkins intercepted Newton on a deflection off of Ted Ginn Jr.’s hands at the New Orleans 14.
But New Orleans couldn’t turn the takeaway into points and for the 10th consecutive game, it failed to get a score on its opening possession.
New Orleans eventually did score, taking a 3-0 lead on Shayne Graham’s first kick as a Saint, a 40-yarder right down the middle.
Coach Sean Payton immediately went for the momentum, calling for an onside kick that was perfectly executed by Thomas Morstead and Ramon Humber, who blocked away Carolina players from receiving the ball.
A 34-yard run by Mark Ingram gave the Saints the ball at the Panthers’ 8, but New Orleans couldn’t punch the ball in a settled on another Graham field goal, this time from 24 yards. Still, New Orleans owned a 6-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
The inability to put the ball in the end zone would haunt the Saints near the end of the first half.
Carolina’s Thomas Davis picked off Brees on third down at the Saints’ 43. One play later, the Panthers fully turned momentum when DeAngelo Williams burst through the Saints’ line and ran untouched for a 43-yard touchdown.
And, despite a dominating first half, the Saints went to halftime trailing 7-6, Brees having been sacked five times but New Orleans leading in every other statistical category.
After halftime, the Saints got the ball and began to drive into Carolina territory when right tackle Zach Strief was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty. The drive stalled, Payton sent on Graham for a third field goal attempt, but called a fake instead.
It failed and seven plays later, Carolina’s Graham Gano hit a 40-yarder to push the New Orleans deficit to 10-6 midway through the fourth quarter.