January 2, 2005

Saints finish strong by beating Carolina

The New Orleans Saints finally had a December to remember, unfortunately it wasn't enough.

The Saints played perhaps their most complete game of the season in winning their fourth straight game.

Needing to beat the Carolina Panthers to stay in playoff contention, the Saints did their part with a 21-18 victory on Sunday. But they needed outside help to get in, and failed to get it. Halfway across the country, the St. Louis Rams beat the New York Jets 32-29 in overtime, ending the season for the Saints.

Aaron Brooks passed for 216 yards and threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Joe Horn, and the Saints (8-8) forced three turnovers and used relentless pressure on Jake Delhomme, sacking him six times.

As the Panthers (7-9) lined up for a desperation 60-yard field goal attempt to send the game into overtime, Tony Bryant blocked John Kasay's kick to preserve the victory. Because the Panthers lost, Minnesota made the playoffs even though the Vikings fell to Washington 21-18.

The win capped an impressive turnaround for the Saints and might have saved coach Jim Haslett's job. On shaky ground a month ago when New Orleans was 4-8, the Saints rallied to win their final four.

The loss ended Carolina's push to make the playoffs. The defending NFC champions started the season 1-7 and lost 14 players to injury before rallying behind a patchwork group of replacements.

But without a core group of skill players, the run finally ended for the Panthers in one of Delhomme's worst games in Carolina.

Off all day, the majority of his passes were uncatchable. They sailed over his receivers, dropped short in front of them, and a few were even out of bounds.

Even his 9-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad was iffy: Muhammad had to reach high to get it over his defender, and barely got his feet inbound.

He had two costly fumbles and finished 24-of-50 for 307 yards.

Delhomme did have two decent drives near the end of the game, throwing a 7-yard TD pass to Muhammad and completing the 2-point conversion to Mike Seidman to make it 21-18 with 5:08 to play.

But after a defensive stop, he was flat again. He threw two incompletions and was sacked by Darren Howard to end any momentum the Panthers had grabbed.

The Saints couldn't run out the clock, though, and the Panthers got one last chance with the ball on the New Orleans 2 and 50 seconds to play. Two completions and a hook-and-ladder set up Kasay's failed attempt.

Brooks, who went 14-for-24 for 216 yards, may finally get a break following this win.

Constantly compared to Delhomme since the Saints let Delhomme go after five seasons as a backup, Delhomme had come back to beat Brooks and New Orleans three straight times. Sick of hearing about it all the time, Brooks finally snapped this week and complained 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.

Brooks looked good at times against Carolina, especially on his 44-yard pass to Horn that gave New Orleans a 21-10 lead in the third quarter.

Deuce McAllister ran for 140 yards and a touchdown, and set up Aaron Stecker's first quarter TD with a 71-yard run.

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