In what is becoming a tradition, the Panthers have defeated the Saints in the regular season finale. Its not so big a deal this time around, as the Saints struggled to keep their starters out of the game.
The biggest news that could have come out of today was not a Saints win or loss (and they lost, 23-10), but injuries to key players as the Saints ride a three game losing streak into a bye week and the playoffs.
On a frigid Carolina field, the Saints met a hard-fighting Panthers team intent on sending the Saints into the playoffs black and blue. Injuries to WR Courtney Roby (carted off, concussion/ribs), WR Robert Meachem (shaken up, returned), CB Malcolm Jenkins (left hamstring), FB Kyle Eckel (stinger), S Chris Reis (concussion) and RB Lynell Hamilton (right shoulder) appear to be the most significant bits of news to come out of today's regular season exhibition game.
The most impressive performance came from the Saints' dazzling fifth round pick rookie punter Thomas Morstead, who was the only weapon for the Saints' offense.
Morstead was fantastic in the first half. He had plenty of opportunities and shined in each. His first punt was 51 yards and caught at the Carolina 9, where Roby immediately blasted returner Captain Munnerlyn down. His second punt was 41 yards and covered by Roby at the 9. His third punt was 39 yards and fair caught at the Carolina 12. His fourth punt was sailed 53 yards and bounded out of bounds at the Carolina 4. His fifth punt, and yes we're still in the first half here, went 41 yards and was downed at the Carolina 10.
WR/KR Courtney Roby had a mixed first half. He played very, very well as a gunner on the Saints' many punts in the first half. But in punt blocking, he drew a flag for block in the back and then shortly before the end of the first half, he fumbled the Panther's kickoff and was injured on the play. Roby was bent over when two Panthers landed on the left side of his ribs diving for his fumble. Roby's fumble led to a quick field goal for the Panthers and a 17-3 halftime lead.
In the second half, Morstead was back at it. Two quick three and outs by the Saints provided him two more opportunities. The first he sent 40 yards to the Panthers' 16 and was returned to the Panther 21, but a penalty moved the Panthers back to their own 11. The second Morstead punted from the grass at the back of his own end zone, a 55 yard boomer all the way into Panther territory. Munnerlyn broke free and returned that up to the Saints 31.
In the fourth quarter, Morstead had two more opportunities, punting 50 yards to Munnerlyn at his own 14 where he was buried by LB Jonathan Casillas, who also started the game at weakside linebacker in place of Scott Shanle (concussion). On his next punt Morstead's 47 yard kick skipped out of bounds at the Panther 11.
Overall, Morstead punted nine times for a staggering 417 yards for an average of 46.3. Seven were downed inside the Panthers' 20, an eighth was returned to the 21 and ended up at the 11 as the result of a penalty.
The Panthers climbed to a 17-3 halftime lead with a Jonathan Stewart 67-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game, and then on a Dwayne Jarrett touchdown strike, beating backup S Pierson Prioleau. Garrett Hartley provided the Saints' points on a 35-yard field in the second quarter, which came at the end of an eight-play, 35 yard drive led by backup QB Mark Brunell.
Drew Brees dressed for the game and was on the inactive list as the emergency quarterback. He could have played in the game but Sean Payton would have never let that happen. Brunell played the entire game. Rookie undrafted QB Chase Daniel dressed and was listed as the second quarterback. He was the only member of the 45-man active roster not to play in the game.
Brunell, 39, faced a tough Panthers defense that was coming off some hot performances. He started his first game in more than three years and finished 15/29 for 102 yards and a late interception. His longest completion was an 18 yard short route to Devery Henderson, who also served as punt returner late in the game.
Lynell Hamilton and Mike Bell were the Saints offense, with Pierre Thomas inactive and Reggie Bush getting five carries in the first half. Hamilton saw more success on the day, carrying 10 times for 48 yards including a couple direct snaps out of the wildcat. Despite an apparent right shoulder injury, Hamilton rushed for New Orleans' only touchdown on the day, a one yard walk-in. That was the last of 33 yards that he gained on the Saints' 64 yard drive at the end of the third quarter.
Hamilton finished with 48 yards on the ground and 38 on three catches and scored his first touchdown since the Saints' week three tilt in Buffalo. Bell rushed 17 times for 28 yards and caught two passes for a two yard loss. Bush made the most of his few carries, ripping off gains of 17 and 16 yards. Bush also had a 21-yard punt return that was knocked out by Roby's penalty.
Brunell would periodically test the Panthers defense downfield with deep pass attempts to Devery Henderson or Robert Meachem, none of which were completed. Meachem took minutes to get up off the turf after a nasty collision near the goal line when Munnerlyn targeted his helmet and slammed him awkwardly to the turf. Meachem was able to return. Meachem had a tough day, getting to only two of the nine passes thrown his way and fumbling one of those two away.
Despite a three game offensive swoon, the 2009 Saints have 510 points, a new team record. The Saints' 13-3 record is the franchise's best and the second best record in the NFL behind the Colts' 14-2 mark.
The Saints have a bye next week and will play their next game on the weekend of Jan 16-17.