December 30, 2002
NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints were so close to the playoffs, just one win away with three chances to get in.
But as they have done so often, New Orleans will watch the postseason after blowing all three games.
Sunday's finale might have been the most disheartening, with Carolina cornerback Terry Cousin grabbing two interceptions and a fumble to preserve the Panthers' 10-6 win.
Atlanta helped New Orleans by losing to Cleveland, 24-16, but the Saints could not take advantage.
"We expected to go to the playoffs at the beginning of the season, the middle of the season and even today," Saints receiver Donte' Stallworth said. "The best team doesn't always win. We found that out a couple of times this season."
Carolina shook off a 1-15 season last year to finish with four victories in its last five games.
"That's character," Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "I've been talking about that the whole season. This team has more character and more togetherness and has gelled so tightly that its an almost eerie feeling."
Fans started booing quarterback Aaron Brooks and the Saints' offense early. By the second half, the chants of "We want Jake!" -- calling for backup Jake Delhomme -- boomed though the Superdome.
"When you play at home, most crowds try to back you and help you win," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "That's what homefield advantage is all about."
The Panthers, with the league's No. 4 defense, allowed 244 yards, 125 rushing.
Brooks, 12-of-31 for 145 yards, was sacked three times and intercepted twice.
"He's been making mistakes," Cousin said. "When you're at home and the crowd boos, that speaks volumes."
Carolina's offense wasn't much better.
Rodney Peete was 19-of-30 for 203 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted twice and sacked twice. The Panthers gained 273 total yards and rushed for 85.
Tempers flared before the game. The Panthers' secondary was upset by remarks that Saints receiver Joe Horn made after the first game this season, when he said he saw fear in the eyes of the Panthers.
"I took it serious," Carolina safety Deon Grant said. "It got me excited. ... Made me want to just go out and hunt all day."
The Panthers scored on a 15-yard touchdown from Peete to Brad Hoover with 51 seconds left in the first half to take a 7-3 lead.
New Orleans' first drive of the second half went to Carolina's 13 before an 8-yard sack of Brooks pushed the Saints back to the 20. John Carney kicked his second field goal, a 38-yarder, to get the Saints within 7-6.
Carolina capped its next drive with a 50-yard field goal by Shayne Graham to go up 10-6 with 2:43 left in the third.