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Saints’ playoff hopes suffer blow in lopsided defeat

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METAIRIE, La. — With only three games remaining in the regular season, the New Orleans Saints are reeling badly after taking a fourth loss in their last five outings on Sunday.

But this one was certainly the hardest to swallow: A 41-10 pummeling at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, a team that had not won a game in more than two months, raised more than a few red flags Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The loss by the listless Saints, who were trounced soundly on both sides of the ball, left coach Sean Payton and his players dumbfounded — especially when you consider that they had a chance to gain a half-game lead in the NFC South over the rival Atlanta Falcons, who didn’t play until Monday night.

The 31-point defeat matched the largest by the Saints since Payton took over in 2006. It also matched the exact score of a 41-10 setback to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2007 season opener, and brought boos several times from a sellout crowd that left the Superdome virtually empty late in the fourth quarter.

The inconsistency the Saints (5-8) showed early in the season reared its ugly head time and again in Sunday’s loss, just one week after Payton’s team put together a solid performance in a 35-32 victory at Pittsburgh.

The Panthers led 17-0 before the Saints recorded a first down. Carolina pushed the lead to 24-3 at halftime and scored on an easy 69-yard run by Jonathan Stewart on its first play from scrimmage in the third quarter — en route to a 41-3 lead.

“Obviously that’s embarrassing — how we played, how we coached,” a frustrated Payton said.

There’s no doubt that Payton was flabbergasted to have his team produce a performance like that so late in the season with so much on the line.

“It’s right out there, and we just saw it,” he said. “We have to look closely at everything … preparation, who we’re asking to do it, and it starts with me.”

REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS

–PASSING OFFENSE: D-minus — Drew Brees hit on 29 of 49 pass attempts for 235 yards and a touchdown, but most of that yardage came long after the game had been decided. He was 9-of-15 for 55 yards in the first half and had only 12 passing yards in the third quarter before throwing for 168 yards in the final 15 minutes as the Panthers coasted. Brees was sacked twice and had a passer rating of 69.7, but it wasn’t all his fault as coach Sean Payton said afterward. Following Payton’s review of the game film, he counted eight dropped passes by Brees’ receivers. Marques Colston had five catches for 72 yards and Nick Toon had four receptions for 45 yards, but no one else was much of a factor — including All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught three passes for 25 yards. The Saints averaged just 8.1 yards per catch with a long gain of 28 yards.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus — It wasn’t terrible, but the Saints simply couldn’t afford to run the ball after falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter and 24-3 at halftime. As a result, they attempted just 17 runs and gained 92 yards for a 5.4 average. Mark Ingram led the way with 43 yards on 10 carries with a long of 16. Pierre Thomas netted 38 yards and a long of 16 on five attempts, but there weren’t many opportunities to move the ball on the ground — especially in the first half when they snapped the ball only 22 times.

–PASS DEFENSE: D — After stifling and thoroughly frustrating Cam Newton in a 28-10 win over the Panthers on Oct. 30 in Charlotte, the Saints failed to do much of anything against him in the rematch. They rarely got close enough to him to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, which resulted in him hitting on 21 of 33 attempts for 226 yards. He threw three touchdown passes, was not sacked and did not throw an interception, producing a passer rating of 114.0. Tight end Greg Olsen caught 10 passes for 72 yards with a 16-yard touchdown, while Kelvin Benjamin had a 9-yard scoring catch and Fozzy Whittaker also got into the end zone on a 26-yard catch.

–RUSH DEFENSE: F — The Saints were gashed early and often by the Panthers, who netted 271 yards and a 6.8 average on 40 attempts with two touchdowns — one of them a 69-yard run by Jonathan Stewart on the first offensive snap of the third quarter to push the lead to 31-3. Stewart accounted for 155 yards on 20 carries, while Newton added 83 yards on 12 carries, most off the read-option, with a 2-yard TD dive. Newton had runs of 20 and 22 yards in the first half to help get things going before Stewart finished the Saints off with his backbreaking run to start the second half. Mike Tolbert had 28 yards on five carries as well.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B — The only thing that saved the grade from being lower was the Saints’ return game and kick coverage. Jalen Saunders had punt returns of 30 and 32 yards after the Saints came into the contest with 42 punt return yards in their first 12 games. Saunders wound up returning three for 68 yards and averaged 22.7 per attempt, while Travaris Cadet had a 28-yard kickoff return. The Saints allowed no kickoff returns and only 3.5 yards per punt return on two attempts. But they were offside on a punt that gave the Panthers a first down. Shayne Graham was 1-of-2 on field goals, making a 37-yarder and missing from 42 yards out.

–COACHING: C — Sean Payton couldn’t do anything to help his team out after they came out listless and uninspired for a huge game. With two turnovers on their first three snaps, the Saints were inept from the start on offense and the 10 points that came off those two giveaways put their defense in a bad situation and behind the eight-ball for most of a frustrating afternoon.


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