NEW ORLEANS — Roman Harper sat at his locker Sunday, his teammates around him having long left the dressing room.
He shook his head, never looking up, and dissected what went wrong on the field less than an hour earlier against the Carolina Panthers in the Saints’ 44-38 season-ending loss.
Third down stops. Big run plays. Big pass plays.
Sunday, in other words, was the entire 2012 season wrapped up in one game.
And because of is, New Orleans finished the season 7-9, the first losing year since 2007 when it ended with the same record.
“Malcolm (Jenkins) said it good when he said we need to take this opportunity and act like this is the first game of 2013,” Harper said. “We didn’t do it well. Yes, I want to put it behind me. I want to learn from all the mistakes that we’ve made offensive, defensively, special teams this year.”
Throughout the week, the Saints declared their desire to reach .500 by season’s end as reason enough to play the finale with fire.
But that wasn’t to be as the Saints allowed 28 unanswered second-half points to Carolina on Sunday, a hole once again too far to come back from much like the 0-4 start did to the season,
“This year is like no other year I’ve ever had,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “Right now I don’t know how to feel about anything.”
Like the rest of those on defense, Lofton likely will begin the offseason wondering about how to fix the consistent leaks that opened up weekly.
New Orleans (7-9) entered the game needing to allow only 282 yards to earn the dubious honor of being the NFL team to allow the most yards in a single season. Carolina (7-9) hit that mark late in the first half and finished the day with 530 yards,
putting the Saints at 7,042 for the season.
Carolina quarterback Cam
Newton had half of the Panthers offense, throwing for 248 yards while rushing for 34 more.
Other than that, the game came down to a push for personal achievement more than anything.
Quarterback Drew Brees finished the season with 5,177 yards for the second straight season and became the first signal-caller with at least 5,000 yards three times in his career. He went 29 of 43 for 396 yards against Carolina, recording four touchdowns and in interception.
Receiver Lance Moore, meantime, passed 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career, his 121 yards on four catches pushing him to 1,041 on the year.
Both came as little solace to the end result.
“Very disappointing,” interim head coach Joe Vitt said. “There’s no way to sugar coat it. Very disappointing.”
Carolina’s second series started the crazy day as it marched 76 yards in 15 plays to take a 3-0 lead on a 20-yard Graham Gano field goal.
And then with 8:18 to go in the first half, the Saints’ deficit grew to 10-0 when Mike Tolbert scored a 1-yard touchdown.
At that point, the Panthers had completely outplayed the Saints. New Orleans had cobbled together just 58 yards and had the ball for only 7 minutes, 7 seconds.
It took only one drive, and a fourth down conversion, for New Orleans to get back into the game. Brees guided the Saints 76 yards in seven plays, hitting Marques Colston for a 7-yard touchdown on fourth-and-one.
Then, on the ensuing Carolina series, linebacker Jonathan Vilma read a screen play perfectly, intercepting the pass from Cam Newton at the 18 and dashing into the end zone for the lead-taking touchdown.
Just like that, with 4:31 to go in the first half, the Saints led 14-10.
A Gano 31-yard field goal cut New Orleans’ lead to 14-13, but Garrett Hartley’s 53-yard field goal as the clock expired gave New Orleans a four-point lead heading into halftime.
On the opening drive of the second half, Brees went over 5,000 yards for the season on a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, giving New Orleans a 24-13 lead.
And then a bizarre call aided the Panthers’ climb back into the game. Greg Olsen fumbled and New Orleans’ Johnny Patrick recovered. But after review, officials declared that Patrick didn’t clearly recover the fumble. Two plays later, Williams sprinted 54 yards into the end zone and those in the Superdome unleashed a torrent of boos.
Suddenly, the Saints’ lead was down to 24-20 with a quarter and a half to play.
“The referee didn’t get the same angle as we did on the Jumbotron in his review and couldn’t see it so it is what it is,” Vitt said. “Every call is not going to go your way.”
Brees’ 19th interception then led to another Tolbert one-yard touchdown plunge and the Saints were again down, this 27-24. Carolina then lengthened its lead to 34-24 on Tolbert’s third 1-yard touchdown of the day.
Williams’ 12-yard touchdown run pushed Carolina’s lead to 41-24 and the Saints got going.
A nine-yard touchdown catch by Colston and a 33-yard touchdown reception by Darren Sproles sandwiched a Gano 42-yard field and New Orleans was within 44-38 with 2:52 to play.
But the Saints couldn’t recover an onside kick and the Panthers ran the clock out on the season.