Saints 23, Panthers 20

When Coach Jim Haslett gathered his New Orleans Saints players at the team's hotel Saturday night, he read them a letter. It was from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who wrote about the horrors he had seen since the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding, from infants dying to corpses being scattered along roadsides. The letter told the Saints that football was just a game but the city's people still loved them and still supported them, and urged them to have fun and do their best in Sunday's season opener against the Carolina Panthers.

"It just put everything in the right perspective," Haslett said.

Haslett's players responded with the sort of win that they hoped put smiles on the faces, even if only temporarily, of their displaced followers watching from relief shelters or relatives' homes. The Saints squandered a 10-point lead but regrouped in the final minute and beat the Panthers, 23-20, at Bank of America Stadium on kicker John Carney's 47-yard field goal with three seconds left.

"It was very emotional for us," Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said. "It feels real good because we know all they went through, all they lost. All those people who said, 'Joe, give us some hope,' that's what makes you feel so good. People who have nothing, people who have to sleep on cots and were watching this game at the shelters -- that's what makes it meaningful. We want to take that with us everywhere we go. Their words kept going through my mind. . . . It's not about the New Orleans Saints. It's about those people sitting on cots with their kids."

The Saints began the new season where they ended last season. Then, they beat the Panthers here to finish the season 8-8 but watched on television in the locker room as their playoff hopes were dashed. This time, they began a season -- one in which they still don't know where they'll play their home games -- with a triumph over a club picked by many to be a Super Bowl contender.

"We were playing to show people how New Orleans feels -- the resolve to push on and come back," Saints tackle Wayne Gandy said. "And, at least for today, this team exemplified that."

The Saints awarded one game ball to the city of New Orleans and intend to give it to Nagin, and another to the people of the Gulf Coast that the team plans to keep and display in its trophy case. "It's wonderful for the people back home," Saints owner Tom Benson said outside his club's locker room, in which the players were clearly pleased but kept their celebration relatively subdued.

"We really did feel like we were representing the city, the South and the Gulf Coast," tight end Ernie Conwell said. "We had people say to us, 'I might not have a house, but I have the Saints.' Football means something to people. We were shocked at how much interest there was in football. People were excited about the Saints still. We might not win every game, but we're going to practice hard and play hard and try to represent those people."

While the Panthers were readying for this game, the Saints were setting up their home away from home in San Antonio and worrying about things such as finding houses, getting family members to town and getting kids enrolled in schools. But Haslett said his team practiced well last week and arrived here ready to play.

That was evident on the game's opening drive, when the Saints held the ball for 15 plays and 91/2 minutes and marched 80 yards for a touchdown on tailback Deuce McAllister's four-yard run. The Panthers got even on a 33-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Delhomme to wide receiver Steve Smith, but the Saints got another McAllister touchdown to take a 14-7 lead into halftime.

It was a bad first half all around for the Panthers, who lost defensive tackle Kris Jenkins to a sprained right knee -- he returned in the second half but had to be helped from the field again -- and had their receivers carelessly step out of bounds while running patterns for penalties on consecutive plays just before the break, each of which looked like it might result in a tying touchdown.

"It looked like a first game," Panthers safety Mike Minter said.

Delhomme threw a pair of interceptions early in the third quarter. The Saints wasted one opportunity when quarterback Aaron Brooks had the ball squirt out of his hand in the pocket, just before his throwing motion started, for a fumble, but a Carney field goal pushed their lead to 17-7. It was 20-14 early in the fourth quarter before a pair of John Kasay field goals for Carolina. The second of those, a 46-yarder, tied the score with 1 minute 4 seconds left, but the Saints got the ball at their 22-yard line with 59 seconds to go and Brooks moved them into position for Carney's kick. A 25-yard completion to Horn was the big play, and Carney trotted on the field with seven seconds left.

"We knew what this game represented," Carney said. "Once the game started, I think the players had our minds on football and the aspects of what we had to do to get the job done. I'm thinking about place-kicking and doing the best job that I can. But when the buzzer sounded and the game was over, I kind of realized what this game had meant to a lot of people."

John Carney, right, celebrates his game-winning, 47-yard field goal with Todd Bouman. "We knew what this game represented," Carney said.The Saints' Fakhir Brown brings down Keary Colbert. "We were playing to show people how New Orleans feels -- the resolve to push on and come back," tackle Wayne Gandy said. "And, at least for today, this team exemplified that."