NEW ORLEANS — With their best offensive player in the locker room with an ankle injury and a rookie quarterback getting his first taste of a thunderous, Cajun-accented crowd, the Carolina Panthers nearly took down the defending Super Bowl champs Sunday in their building.
But the Panthers' final drive and hopes of upsetting New Orleans died with pair of 4-yard losses on consecutive plays that allowed the Saints to hold on for a 16-14 win before a Louisiana Superdome crowd of 70,016.
Carolina (0-4) scored two touchdowns for the first time this season - one more than the Drew Brees-led Saints (3-1) managed against the Panthers' bend-but-don't-break defense.
But three field goals by 46-year-old kicker John Carney and Carolina's inability to finish left the Panthers among the NFL's four remaining winless teams.
It is the Panthers' worst start in John Fox's nine seasons and just the third 0-4 start in franchise history.
In a quiet visitors locker room, players tried to find the positives after their best effort of the year.
"I mean, we scored more than seven points, so that's an improvement from the other games," said receiver Steve Smith, who left late in the third quarter after spraining his left ankle and did not return. "I think as a team we are making progress."
The Panthers held a fourth-quarter lead for the first time this season until Carney's 25-yard field goal capped an 18-play drive that took more than nine minutes and put the Saints up by two points with 3:55 remaining.
Carney was perfect on three field goals after re-signing with the Saints two days after Garrett Hartley missed an overtime kick last week in a loss to Atlanta.
It appeared John Kasay, the Panthers' 40-year-old kicker, would get a chance at a game-winning kick when quarterback Jimmy Clausen moved the Panthers into New Orleans territory in the final two minutes.
Left tackle Jordan Gross said the crowd noise was so deafening that linemen had to read Clausen's lips in the huddle and when he made calls at the line of scrimmage. Clausen compared the noise level to what he faced at Penn State when he was at Notre Dame - only louder.
But Clausen briefly quieted the crowd when he scrambled to his right and hit David Gettis for 16 yards with 1:46 left.
After a rush by DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers faced a second-and-8 on the Saints' 36-yard line - a yard from what Kasay said was within his range.
But New Orleans stopped Williams behind the line when he tried to cut back to his left. Williams had scored on a 39-yard run on a similar play in the third quarter.
The Saints blitzed on third down and Malcolm Jenkins sacked Clausen, leaving the Panthers with a fourth-and-16 and no timeouts.
"I was just trying to make a play," Clausen said. "They were blitzing and I couldn't get it out quick enough. I can't take a sack in that situation."
Clausen's fourth-down pass for Dwayne Jarrett fell incomplete. It might not have mattered. With eight seconds left when the ball was snapped, the Panthers would have had a hard time getting the clock stopped for a field goal try.
"Unfortunately, we went backwards. And that wasn't by design. In one case it was a player trying to make a play. In the other case, it was good pressure," Fox said. "Where we ended up, there weren't a whole lot of options on fourth-and-(16)."
That the Panthers even had a chance to win in the final minute was a testament to a couple of big plays on offense - Jonathan Stewart had a 55-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter - and the resolve of their defense.
Playing with their third- and fourth-string tailbacks after injuries to Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, New Orleans held a 16-minute edge in time of possession and ran 32 more offensive plays.
But the Panthers forced two fumbles - one at their 1-yard line - and forced the Saints to settle for field goals. Carolina's defensive backs played a soft zone and kept the New Orleans receivers in front of them.
Brees threw for 275 yards on 33-of-48 passing, but his longest completion was just 20 yards.
"Today should have been a 30-point day," Brees said. "We had an opportunity to score a touchdown there at the end to make it less interesting, and we didn't."
After three consecutive 13-point losses to start the season, the Panthers certainly kept the Saints' interest. But the end result was still the same.
"I thought we had them against the ropes and just needed to get a few more yards, and kick it through and go home. But it didn't happen," said Gross, in his eighth year with the Panthers.
"It's tough," Gross added. "You're amped-up, ready to go [in a] tough environment against a great team that does a lot of things really well. ... It was going to be down to the wire, and we were close. Just got to get a little closer."
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