Ricky Williams is looking like a runningback that makes a quarterback's job so much easier. With 147 yards rushing on 31 carries and 31 more yards on four catches, Williams made up for an inconsistent Aaron Brooks and provided the dramatic game-winning points in the final second. It was Williams third-highest rushing yardage total in his career.
Aaron Brooks, on the other hand, is beginning to show his inexperience. Starting only his 12th game, Brooks had trouble making accurate throws in the humid, windy, wet conditions and finished 14 of 40 for only 180 yards. He had two early touchdowns to tight end Cam Cleeland and one interception in the first half. Brooks was visibly exhausted at the end of the game, but had enough moxie and strength for run and pass the Saints 82 yards down the field in the final 1:48. Brooks had a 14-yard run down the right side for a critical first down, and was 4-12 on the final drive for 58 yards.
TE Cam Cleeland had his best game since his rookie season, catching three balls for 38 yards and two touchdowns. Cleeland now has six catches for three touchdowns on the season. Cleeland has also been doing an excellent job in run blocking.
The Saints defense dominated and flustered Heisman Trophy-winning rookie Chris Weinke in the first half, forcing two fumbles. Charlie Clemons intercepted Weinke as well, as the rookie from Florida State finished the first half 7 of 20 for 71 yards, 47 of which came on a screen pass to runningback Tim Biakabutuka. Weinke would settle down in the second half and finished 21-39 for 196 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. For the third game in a row, the Saints stifled the Carolina running attack. Biakabutuka finished with 30 yards on 13 carries. Weinke would connect with WR Donald Hayes and TE Wesley Walls, a former Saint, on touchdowns that would set the Panthers up to take the lead on a punt return touchdown by rookie Steve Smith.
The Saints got the ball back with 1:48 on their own 18 yard-line, with only one time out. Brooks would start out as inconsistent as he had been most game. He hit Cleeland for 11, incomplete to Willie Jackson, and then hit Jackson again for an 11-yard gain, and a face mask penalty on the Panthers would add another 5 yards.
1:10 left on the clock.
Brooks would then throw three incompletions to Willie Jackson to set up a 4th and 10. He would hit Jackson for a 14-yard gain, keeping the drive alive and stifling the crowd.
Brooks would break free of the pass rush and scramble for 14 yards, running out of bounds at the Carolina 27.
Then, taking a shot for the end-zone, Brooks aimed for Joe Horn in double coverage. Despite possible pass interference on Carolina DB Rashard Anderson, Horn got two hands on the ball but couldn't come down with it. On the next play, the 12th straight from shotgun, Brooks moved around in the pocket, stepped up, and flicked a bullet to Joe Horn deep down the left side for 22 to the Panther 5. Brooks would spike the ball with 15 seconds left.
Rookie DB Jarrod Cooper would be off-sides on the next play, and move the Saints closer to the goal line. It was incomplete to Joe Horn.
10 seconds left.
Brooks would then aim for Cam Cleeland in the end zone, but safety Mike Minter was guilty of defensive pass interference. :06 left, on the one yard line. Brooks, bent over and exhausted between plays, throws off his back foot under heavy pressure, incomplete in the end zone.
The clock runs down to :01.
That's when Ricky Williams took over. Willie Roaf provided a critical pull block to seal the left side, and Ricky outran DT Brentson Buckner to the corner of the end zone, the longest yard he's ever gained. Williams ran to the Saints fans in the corner of the end zone and slapped their outstretched hands before his teammates caught up to congratulate him.
It was a game that saw the Saints start off hot, and then seemingly let up from the second quarter until late in the fourth. The Saints would collect six penalties for 55 yards, an improvement, but disappointing in that most of the penalties came on the special teams. While the Saints coverage teams have been superb through most of the year, they gave up one big return that nearly cost them the game. WR/KR/PR Michael Lewis was benched after fumbling two punts, losing the second. Lewis also made two bad decisions after the Panthers' two late touchdowns. He brought kickoffs out from five years deep, then failed to get back to the 20 yard line.
The Saints lost their first and second fumbles of the season. The first came when Ricky Williams broke open after catching a pass on a crossing pattern, and rumbled down the right sideline for a 30-yard gain. But DB Rashard Anderson stripped the ball and recovered the ball at the Carolina 40. The second was Lewis' muffed punt at the Saint 16 which set up Weinke's first touchdown pass.
DE Joe Johnson started the game but possibly aggravated his strained left triceps and sat out the second half. Darren Howard moved to Johnson's side and Willie Whitehead played left defensive end. Linebacker Darrin Smith would collect the Saints' only sack on the day early on, as the Carolina offensive line is obviously much improved from the unit that allowed 16 sacks in two games last season. Carolina DE Mike Rucker collected both of the Panthers' sacks.
Starting LG Wally Williams suffered an ankle or foot injury in the game, had it looked at, returned, and then left the game for good. CB Kevin Mathis' suffered a mild concussion but continued to play.