NEW ORLEANS — After spending the first half showing what they can do, the Carolina Panthers spent the second half showing what they can't.
They can't convert big plays. They can't find a player to win them a game they aren't supposed to win. On a roster full of middle relievers, they can't find a closer.
As long as the Panthers can run with impunity, hand off on third-and-13 and play so conservatively they make a Southern Baptist preacher look reckless, they're golden.
They led New Orleans, a two-touchdown favorite, by a touchdown. Then they led by two touchdowns. Quarterback Jake Delhomme had to throw only five first-half passes. Hooray.
But the longer the game went, the better New Orleans became. And there was not a thing the Panthers could do, or would do, to keep up.
The Saints won 30-20 at the Louisiana Superdome. Halfway through their season, the Panthers fall to 3-5. Talk to the players, and to a man they believe they are better than their record. Their coaches also do.
In related news, Washington, Oakland and Kansas City believe they, too, are better than their records.
The Panthers are where they deserve to be. Despite going 12-4 last season, they were never world-beaters. They played five games that were determined by four or fewer points and won them all.
Last season somebody always came through. Often it was Delhomme going deep to Steve Smith. Late in the game, under pressure, Delhomme lofted a pass to Smith. But Smith lost it in the garish dome lights, and it fell incomplete.
Look, the Panthers played well Sunday. They blocked well and ran well and, with both fullbacks injured, improvised well.
But the Saints came in undefeated. To beat them, in their building, in front of a raucous crowd, the Panthers needed to expand the 14-point lead they held midway through the second quarter.
"We knew ... that they would come back," cornerback Richard Marshall said. "Hey, they did it last year on us. We knew what they were capable of."
While the Panthers drew in, the Saints attacked with a confidence that bordered on disdain and outscored them 24-3 in the second half. No shock there; the Saints had outscored their opponents 81-18 in the fourth quarter coming in.
Leading 17-13 in the third quarter, the Panthers had the ball first-and-goal on the New Orleans 1. But on the first play, a handoff to Jonathan Stewart, makeshift fullback Mackenzy Bernadeau bumped into Delhomme.
Bernadeau, who was in the backfield because of injuries to starter Brad Hoover and backup Tony Fiammetta, is believed to be one of the 10 biggest fullbacks of all time. When a 308-pound fullback bumps you, you know it.
Off balance and unable to handoff, Delhomme was tackled for a 6-yard loss. But the play did not have to be as big as Bernadeau is. The Panther had the ball second-and-goal on the 7. Then came a 1-yard run, and then DeAngelo Williams dropped a touchdown pass, and then came a field goal, and then came the Saints.
The Panthers are so conservative there are times when you look down on the field and expect to see them wearing old-fashioned helmets without face masks. If you're watching at home, there are afternoons when you turn on the TV and expect to see the game in black and white.
With 21/2 minutes remaining in the first half, the Panthers had the ball on the New Orleans 44. Delhomme fumbled and lost a yard. Jeff King was penalized 5 yards for a false start. Williams ran for 2 yards and then for zero.
The Panthers had a tremendous opportunity Sunday. They earned it. They created it. And they shrank from it.
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