CHARLOTTE, Jan. 2 -- The New Orleans Saints had a good day of football-playing but a bad day of television-viewing.
The Saints temporarily kept their playoff hopes alive by beating the Carolina Panthers, 21-18, here Sunday afternoon, knocking the defending NFC champion from the postseason chase when they blocked a 60-yard field goal attempt by Carolina kicker John Kasay as time expired. The Saints players then crowded around the single TV set suspended from the ceiling in the cramped visitors' locker room at Bank of America Stadium and watched as their season ended when the St. Louis Rams beat the New York Jets in overtime.
Aaron Brooks tries to evade the Panthers' Al Wallace, center, and Brenston Buckner.
(Gerry Broome -- AP)
"That's life,'' Saints wide receiver Donte Stallworth said as Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins's winning field goal sailed through the uprights. "Nobody in this locker room has a reason to hold their heads. No one thought we'd get this close. Everyone counted us out. I'm disappointed with the outcome, but we fought back from 4-8. We did our part. We took care of our business.''
The Saints (8-8) won their final four games of the season but were beaten on tiebreakers for the two NFC wild-card spots. Ironically, the Saints' victory put the Minnesota Vikings into the playoffs; had the Vikings won at Washington, the Saints also would have gotten in because they held the tiebreaker over the Rams. The Saints lost a three-way tiebreaker with the Vikings and the Rams.
The strong finish might be enough to save the job of Coach Jim Haslett. But it wasn't enough to get the Saints what would have been their first playoff appearance since the 2000 season, Haslett's first year as the club's head coach.
"It's a shame we don't get a chance to show off what we can do in the playoffs,'' Haslett said. "I give credit to our players. They fought hard today. . . . It's a team that has a lot of heart, a lot of fight. They took some things personal halfway through the season, and they didn't quit when they were 4-8. . . . They did a nice job sticking together. There was a lot of stuff going on this year. It wasn't pretty.''
Said Saints wideout Joe Horn: "The chips fell where they may. We came out on the short end. It was a roller-coaster ride. We stuck together. We knew no one outside this locker room would believe in us to do anything. [But] we put ourselves in this situation. We know we have a good football team. We showed that in the last four weeks. We should have done that earlier, and we wouldn't have been sitting here looking at a TV.''
The Panthers (7-9) became the fourth straight Super Bowl runner-up to have a losing record and fail to reach the playoffs the following season. They nearly rallied to reach the postseason after dropping seven of their first eight games and losing a string of key players -- including tailbacks Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, wideout Steve Smith and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins -- to injuries. They left themselves no margin for error, and they couldn't quite come back Sunday from deficits of 14-3 and 21-10.
"I'm disappointed for the players and the fans,'' Panthers Coach John Fox said. "But the players fought their butts off. I'm still very proud of this football team.''
The Panthers lost three fumbles, two by quarterback Jake Delhomme and one by tailback Nick Goings, and were limited to 46 rushing yards. They abandoned their running game in the second half, and Delhomme ended up throwing a career-high 50 passes. He finished with 24 completions for 307 yards and two touchdowns, both to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, but was sacked six times.
"We weren't able to run the ball,'' Fox said. "When you can't establish the run, it doesn't slow the defense down. It goes hand in hand. . . . Really, the difference in the game was three turnovers to none.''
The Panthers got to 21-18 on Delhomme's nine-yard touchdown pass to Muhammad with just more than five minutes to play but failed on their final two possessions with chances to tie or take the lead. They went three plays and out and punted with just less than 3 1/2 minutes to go, then forced a punt and got the ball back at their 2-yard line with no timeouts and 50 seconds left. Delhomme got them to the Saints 42 and stopped the clock with an incompletion that sailed over the head of rookie wideout Keary Colbert, but Kasay's long field-goal try was blocked by Tony Bryant.
The Saints overcame a ragged start that included a sideline screaming match between Haslett and safety Mel Mitchell after a personal foul by Mitchell on a punt play. Tailback Deuce McAllister ran for 140 yards on 28 carries, setting up one touchdown with a 71-yard dash and scoring another with a one-yard scamper to the corner of the end zone.
Quarterback Aaron Brooks threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Horn late in the third quarter and finished 14 of 24 for 216 yards, a performance that obviously pleased him.
"I really don't have much to say to none of you all,'' Brooks said before walking away from reporters in the Saints' locker room. "I said after this game I'd be laughing at you all, the fake experts in the media. All of you all [have] been talking [stuff] about Aaron Brooks.''