Saints bar Panthers from playoffs, suffer same end

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Tom Benson crowded around a tiny
television, the fate of his football team resting on the outcome of
a game being played halfway across the country.

As the St. Louis Rams won in overtime to eliminate New Orleans
from playoff contention, the Saints' owner shuffled off in
disappointment as a heavy silence fell over the locker room.

It was hardly the victory celebration the Saints had hoped for.

New Orleans finally won a game that mattered, beating the
Carolina Panthers 21-18 on Sunday to stay in the playoff hunt. But
when the Rams beat the New York Jets 15 minutes later, the Saints'
season was over.

"We just came up a little short," Benson said as he trudged
past his dejected players. "We've got a hell of a ball club.
Anyone who did what we did this year has a hell of a ball club."

What the Saints (8-8) did was rally to win their final four
games to at least have a shot at the playoffs. In doing so, they
might have saved coach Jim Haslett's job. Benson would not comment
on Haslett, who was on the endangered list a month ago when the
Saints were 4-8.

The Panthers (7-9) also had a late-season surge and headed into
the finale with a chance to make the postseason. A victory over the
Saints and some outside help would have gotten the defending NFC
champions in after a 1-7 start.

"It stings because even starting out 1-7, down the stretch we
still had our destiny in our own hands and we couldn't close it
out," said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "It was there for
the taking. We had that chance and just didn't take advantage of

The Saints, who had one of the worst defenses in the NFL most of
the season, turned it up against Carolina to wreak havoc on Jake

Delhomme, who spent five seasons as a backup in New Orleans
before joining the Panthers last season, had his worst day in
Carolina. He was sacked six times, had two costly fumbles and
completed just 24-of-50 passes. He did pass for 307 yards and a
pair of touchdowns, but his failure to find a rhythm desperately
crippled Carolina.

"There is no explanation for it," he said. "I had some
chances to hit some guys and just didn't. They did a great job of
rushing the passer, probably the best pass rush we've faced all

Still, he had the Panthers in position to tie the game at the
end of regulation after two long passes and a hook-and-ladder set
up John Kasay's 60-yard field goal attempt.

But Tony Bryant blocked it, sealing the Saints win and sending
them to the locker room to crowd around a single TV and alternate
between cheering the Jets and cursing the Rams.

"It's a shame because we're probably the hottest team in the
NFC right now and we don't get a chance to show off what we can do
in the playoffs," Haslett said. "We dug a hole early and we
couldn't get out of it."

Aaron Brooks had a decent game against the Panthers, going
14-for-24 for 216 yards and a 44-yard touchdown pass to Joe Horn.

The touchdown was impressive, capping a three-play drive that
quickly answered a Carolina touchdown and put the Saints up 21-10
with 3:10 left in the third. His performance might be enough to
silence his critics, who have angered him with a constant
comparison to Delhomme.

Because the likable Delhomme is a Louisiana native, he was the
fan favorite during his time backing up Brooks. It didn't help that
he won his first three meetings against the Saints, either.

Brooks finally cracked this week when asked again about
Delhomme, complaining that Delhomme never capitalized on his
chances in New Orleans. He also described Delhomme as a good
quarterback with a great cast, while Brooks said he was the
opposite: A great quarterback with a good cast.

So after beating Delhomme and the Panthers, it seemed as if
Brooks would finally be at peace.

He wasn't.

"I really don't have much to say to none of y'all," he said.
"I said after the game that I'd be laughing at y'all, the fake
experts in the media. All y'all been talking (expletive) on Aaron

Game notes
The Saints have not been to the playoffs since the 2000
season. ... Deuce McAllister ran for 140 yards and a touchdown, and
set up Aaron Stecker's first quarter TD with a 71-yard run. ...
Horn's score set the franchise record for touchdowns in a season
with 11. He also owns the team mark for yards in a season with
1,399. ... The Saints had four personal fouls, one leading to a
shouting match between Haslett and safety Mel Mitchell on the
sidelines. ... Nick Goings had his worst game since becoming
Carolina's featured running back with 46 yards and a fumble.


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