Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. Zach Strief sat in front of his locker at Bank of America Stadium Sunday afternoon, his voice tinged with frustration not even 30 minutes after the Saints dropped a 17-13 clash with Carolina.

Once again, the Saints lost on the road and once again, New Orleans failed to capitalize on an opportunity it had in front it.

But more than any other loss this season, this one hurts.

Because not only would a win have answered any questions anyone had about the Saints' ability to win on the road, it would have secured them the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and kept them off the road until late January.


Well, now the Saints don't really control what they wanted to because they couldn't hold on to a lead with 55 seconds to play and their future almost firmly clutched in the palms of the hands.

'The fact of the matter is for all the energy, for all the excitement, for all the effort, at the end of the day, it counts as if you didn't have any of it,' Strief said. 'That's disappointing. It was right there for us and we didn't collectively as a group make enough plays at the end to finish the game and that's tough.'

Sunday's loss was basically the same as the one to New England on Oct. 13, but with more at stake. It was more devastating than the six-point loss at the Jets on Nov. 3 or the 27-point debacle in Seattle on Dec. 2 or even the head-scratching 11-point loss at St. Louis on Dec. 15.

This time, the Saints played well enough to win. They outgained the Panthers by 143 yards. They kept Carolina conversion-less on third down. They controlled the ball for almost 18 more minutes.

They still lost.

The offense needed a first down after getting the ball with 1:57 to play, a first-down that would have sealed the game, and it couldn't.

The defense needed just one stop in the 62 yards between where the Panthers took over with 55 seconds to play and no timeouts, and it couldn't.

In the locker room afterward, the players were mostly positive, focusing more on the way the team responded a week after not showing up against St. Louis.

It felt just a bit like they were talking with blinders on, like they're Kevin Bacon in 'Animal House' shouting, 'All is well! Remain calm!'

What has happened to this team since starting 5-0 and dashing out to a 3.5 game lead in the division is stunning.

Instead of being in the playoffs already, they're left waiting on a handful of scenarios to play out.

They could get in the postseason on their own with a win at home against Tampa Bay. They could get in with an Arizona loss to San Francisco. They could get in with two more 49ers losses. They could still earn the No. 2 seed with a win over the Bucs and a Panthers loss to Atlanta. They could still miss the playoffs entirely if they lose to Tampa Bay and Arizona beats San Francisco.

If you're scratching your head in confusion, you're not alone.

New Orleans was once undefeated and the talk of the league. It once was 9-2 and fighting with Seattle for the first seed in the playoffs.

Now it's just fighting to escape one of the great collapses of the past decade.

That's why Sunday was most disappointing.

All could have been forgotten. In spite of everything, the Saints could still have had an easy path to the NFC championship game.

But they couldn't rise to the occasion, not even when it was all but handed to them.

And now on Sunday at home, they'll once again play the biggest game of the season for the fifth straight week.

Saints fans might want to pack the Pepto-Bismol.

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