For the better part of six quarters the Panthers played solid, smart football. They did not turn the ball over, ran it seemingly at will and forced turnovers. As a result, a team that had started 2-4 and struggled at home against Buffalo and Washington soundly defeated a division leader (Arizona) and built a 17-3 lead on the road over an unbeaten team (New Orleans). For nearly 90 minutes, essentially, the 2009 Panthers again looked like the 2008 Panthers.
Then the Panthers suddenly reverted back to 2009 form. It started Sunday with a fumbled snap late in the second quarter, and ended with consecutive turnovers in the final three minutes of what became a 30-20 loss to the Saints. In between they dropped passes, lost a potential touchdown pass in the lights and committed costly penalties.
The sudden breakdown of the Carolina offense cost the team a game it needed to hang in the NFC South race. A win would have drawn the Panthers within three games of New Orleans with a 2-1 division record and their final three divisional games at home. Instead Carolina is five games out and will need a huge surge just to snatch a wild card berth.
The defense was not great; New Orleans rolled up 414 yards of offense. But the unit held the Saints to 23 points and forced two turnovers. It gave the Panthers a chance to win. But the offense, after a good start, could not capitalize.
Here is a breakdown of the offensive miscues that cost Carolina a game it was controlling:
Situation: Third-and-16, midfield. 17-3 Carolina. 2:00 to play in the second quarter.
The Panthers followed a Chris Gamble interception with a 13-yard DeAngelo Williams run for a first down at the New Orleans 44, and 2:33 to play in the first half. Delhomme fumbled the ensuing snap and, although he recovered the ball, he lost three yards on the play. Tight end Jeff King than was penalized for a false start and Williams ran for two yards to set up this third-down play.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, two receivers (one on each side) and two tight ends. The Saints used four down linemen with two defenders showing blitz and two corners playing press coverage.
What happened: Williams ran up the middle for no gain. New Orleans called timeout to stop the clock with 1:53 left in the half.
How it happened: The Saints blitzed three defenders, including a corner and safety Darren Sharper. Sharper fired into the backfield untouched and nailed Williams.
The Panthers had successfully run on third-and-long earlier in the possession, but the Saints were not fooled this time.
The result: The Panthers blew good field position following the Gamble interception and, to compound their failure, punted the ball back to the Saints with enough time for Drew Brees to move them into position to kick a field goal. That kick launched a 27-3 run by the Saints to close the game.
Situation: First-and-goal, New Orleans 1. 17-13 Carolina. 4:51 to play in third quarter.
Formations: Carolina lined up in I-formation with a tight end left and a receiver on each side. New Orleans used six down linemen with two corners in press coverage and three other defenders in the box.
What happened: Before the play the Panthers wasted a timeout because they could not get the right players onto the field. Then Delhomme was sacked for a 6-yard loss when he fumbled attempting to hand the ball off.
How it happened: With the Panthers' top two fullbacks injured, guard Mackenzy Bernadeau lined up at fullback in front of tailback Jonathan Stewart. Delhomme prepared to handoff to Stewart as Bernadeau ran straight ahead. Bernadeau‘s left elbow struck the ball and jarred it loose. As Stewart looked for the handoff, Delhomme caught the ball and Stewart ran past him. The Saints' right defensive end fired in and tackled Delhomme.
Stewart had a gaping hole in between right guard and tackle. He may not have needed a block from the fullback to score.
The result: The Panthers failed to score a touchdown that would have made given them a two-score lead with less than 20 minutes to play. After a 1-yard run, the Panthers faced third-and-goal.
Situation: Third-and-goal, New Orleans 6. 17-13 Carolina. 3:37 to play in third.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, trips left and a receiver right. The Saints were in a 4-3 with one corner in press coverage on the receiver split right, and other defenders off the line.
What happened: Delhomme threw incomplete for Williams, open at the goal line.
How it happened: Delhomme looked left, turned right and spotted Williams, who ran free past a defensive end. Nobody picked up Williams and Delhomme hit him in the hands, but Williams could not hang on.
The result: The Panthers had to settle for a field goal. The Saints responded with a quick touchdown to tie the game 20-20 entering the fourth quarter.
Situation: First-and-15, Carolina 15. 20-20 tie. 15:00 to play in fourth quarter.
Formations: Carolina lined up in I-formation with a tight end and receiver on each side. New Orleans used a 4-3 with its two corners in press coverage.
What happened: Receiver Dwayne Jarrett missed a bomb from Delhomme that fell incomplete.
How it happened: Jarrett beat single coverage from a corner and sprinted down the right sideline. The Saints' safeties were on the other side of the field, leaving Jarrett and the corner alone. Jarrett extended for Delhomme's pass at the Saints 40 but the ball slid through his hands.
The result: A few plays later the Panthers punted. New Orleans responded with a long drive and a field goal to go ahead for the first time all day.
Situation: Fourth-and-8, New Orleans 43. 23-20 Saints. 2:51 to play.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, three receivers (two right), and a tight end in the left slot. The Saints used three linemen with their corners in press coverage and a linebacker showing blitz.
What happened: Defensive end Will Smith stripped Delhomme and the Saints recovered at their 48.
How it happened: The Panthers had driven to the 43 and faced a second-and-8 with just over three minutes to play. Delhomme fired long for receiver Steve Smith, who was single-covered. But Smith lost the ball in the lights and it fell incomplete at the 10. On the next play Jarrett failed to adjust to a Delhomme lob near the 20. He looked for the ball over his left shoulder, but Delhomme threw it to his right and it fell incomplete.
That forced the fourth-down play. Delhomme held the ball for nearly three seconds. He seemed to look for Williams coming out of the backfield, but the linebacker who had shown blitz covered Williams. Will Smith hit his arm from behind as he began to throw downfield.
The result: The Saints squashed the drive just outside of field goal range and forced the Panthers to use their final two timeouts on defense. New Orleans then pinned a punt at the Carolina 2.
Situation: First-and-10, Carolina 2. 23-20 Saints. 2:17 to play.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, a tight end left and three receivers (two right). The Saints used a 4-3 and dropped their defensive backs deep.
What happened: Williams ran up the middle and fumbled. The Saints recovered and returned the fumble 1 yard for a touchdown.
How it happened: Williams ran in between the center and right guard. He had a seam if he had cut right, around a good block from Smith on corner Malcolm Jenkins. But the Saints' left defensive tackle stripped the ball as Williams ran through the hole.
The result: The Panthers trailed by two scores with two minutes, and no timeouts, left.