CHARLOTTE, N.C.-- Drew Brees watched from the sideline as the New Orleans offense failed to move the ball. He shivered on the cold Sunday afternoon as the backups on defense tried to stop Jonathan Stewart.
Just after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell talked of creating incentives to get teams that have already locked up playoff positioning to play their starters, Saints coach Sean Payton enjoyed the view of Brees with him on the sideline -- even if it meant entering the playoffs on a three-game losing streak after a 23-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
'The idea of getting a draft pick and having your quarterback not healthy for a divisional playoff game doesn't sound real appealing to me,' Payton said of Goodell's incentive idea.
So 39-year-old Mark Brunell started for Brees, who broke Ken Anderson's 27-year-old NFL record for completion percentage in a season without throwing a pass. Jeremy Shockey never got on the field, Reggie Bush got only five carries and by the second half nearly every defensive starter was watching.
Sure, the Saints (13-3) are still the No. 1 seed with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But what happened to the team that was once flirting with a perfect season?
'Would I have loved it if we came out here and scored 41 today? I mean, yeah,' Brees said. 'But is it worth the risk? Those are the things you have to weigh. We had a formula that worked well for us in 2006 with that No. 2 seed and first-round bye. That's what we're following.'
The Saints rested their starters against Carolina that day, too. This time, they were out of it after the second play from scrimmage, when Stewart rumbled 67 yards for a touchdown.
He finished with 125 yards and teamed with the injured DeAngelo Williams to give the Panthers two 1,100-yard rushers, the first time it's happened since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Matt Moore threw for 162 yards and a touchdown to Dwayne Jarrett to finish 4-1 as a starter, after the struggling Jake Delhomme was sidelined with a broken finger.
Defensive end Julius Peppers, in perhaps his final game in Carolina ahead of another offseason of free agency, intercepted Brunell late in the fourth quarter.
But the big question after the game for the Panthers (8-8) centered on coach John Fox.
'He took a team that was 5-8 going down the stretch and we finished this thing 8-8, and that's a great testament to his leadership ability,' Panthers defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. 'We really appreciate the job he's been doing. We hope to get him back.'
Fox, with a year left on his contract but no extension in sight, sidestepped questions of whether he'd like to return to Carolina or seek other jobs.
'I usually talk to my family and see where that all goes,' he said.
There was little suspense for Fox after the Panthers scored 10 points in the final 13 seconds of the first half to take a 17-3 lead.
Jarrett, the disappointing 2007 second-round pick, was active only because Steve Smith broke his left forearm a week earlier. Jarrett had a leaping fourth-down catch, then caught a 30-yard touchdown -- his first as a pro -- to put the Panthers up 14-3. Courtney Roby then fumbled the kickoff return, Dante Wesley recovered and John Kasay's 41-yard field goal on the final play put Fox's Panthers in command.
'I don't want to play for anybody else,' linebacker Jon Beason said.
With the exception of the 30-degree temperature, the second half resembled a preseason game. Backup Lynell Hamilton's 1-yard run at the end of the third quarter was the Saints' only TD.
Brunell, making his first start since 2006 in Washington, was 15 of 29 for 102 yards and an interception as the Saints became the first No. 1 seed to enter the playoffs on a three-game skid.
'I don't think this is going to kill our team's momentum,' Shockey said. 'I know what we have in front of us. I think every person in this locker room is going to join arms and continue to play football like we did the first 13 games of the season.'
NOTES: It was the coldest home game in team history for the Panthers. ... Saints CB Jabari Greer played some after missing seven games with a sports hernia. ... Beason had eight tackles to finish with 164, breaking his own team record. 'Be better, because apparently I'm not good enough,' Beason said, referring to his Pro Bowl snub.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)