The prevailing storyline before the Panthers' game with New Orleans centered on a couple of players facing their former teams.
But by the time tight end Jeremy Shockey ran off the field without shaking hands with the Saints, and John Kasay had whistled three field goals through the familiar Bank of America uprights, the focus had shifted to what is quickly becoming a tired trend for the Panthers: another exciting game, but another close loss.
After Drew Brees led the Saints back for a 30-27 victory Sunday, Panthers first-year coach Ron Rivera was asked whether this defeat was tougher to take than the previous three, which - like this one - all were by a touchdown or less.
"No, they all suck to be honest with you," Rivera said. "At some point it's going to turn around. And when it does - like I keep saying, people may not believe me - but when it turns around, better watch out because we're not going to forget."
The Panthers (1-4) led the NFC-South leading Saints (4-1) for much of the fourth quarter until Brees hit tailback Pierre Thomas on a play-action pass for a 6-yard touchdown with 50 seconds left.
Rivera chose to hold on to his timeouts for the Panthers' final offensive drive, which bogged down after officials overturned a 16-yard catch by Legedu Naanee on replay review and called left tackle Jordan Gross for holding.
At midfield with five seconds left, the Panthers set up for a Hail Mary. But the Saints blitzed and forced rookie quarterback Cam Newton out of the pocket, and Newton's off-balance throw fell incomplete about 20 yards short of the goal line as time expired.
"They blitzed us the last play of the game on a Hail Mary, which you don't see very often. That's a pretty gutsy call by their coordinator," right guard Geoff Hangartner said. "But we were prepared for their blitzes and everything they did. Unfortunately, we couldn't score enough to win the game."
The Panthers' defense was just as culpable. Carolina allowed the Saints to convert 12 of 17 third downs and amass 444 yards in the matchup between the NFL's second- (Saints) and third-ranked offenses.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, whose development prompted New Orleans to release Shockey after last season, caught eight passes for 129 yards. Graham, who went to high school in Goldsboro, was not expecting to be a big part of the offense.
"The crazy thing is in the game plan it actually didn't seem like I was going to get all those throws," Graham said. "Drew just finds the open receiver."
Brees took over at his own 11 with 7:06 remaining and the Saints trailing 27-23. The perennial Pro Bowler completed 8 of 9 passes on the 13-play, game-winning drive, which left the Panthers with less than a minute to counter.
"It's frustrating, as a defense especially. I feel that the offense did enough. The defense, we have to be more stout," safety Charles Godfrey said. "That last drive we can't let them get in. If we hold them, we're up and we possibly have a chance to win the game. We have to do better."
Five of the Saints' six scoring drives were 10 plays or more and covered at least 52 yards. The exception was a 3-yard drive that Newton gift-wrapped with an interception on the first play from scrimmage. Steve Smith ran an out, Newton threw a slant and Patrick Robinson had an easy pick.
"It was my fault. Smitty did an excellent job of running his route. I thought he was running the slant," Newton said. "You look at it at the end of the game and you never know when you're going to need those points."
The Panthers also gave New Orleans three points at the end of the first half when Rivera called timeout with two seconds left while the Saints were setting up for a field goal. Rather than keep the defense on the field, the Panthers tried to change personnel.
"I just heard field goal block and I'm on field goal block," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "I just stayed on the field and I know we called a timeout. I really don't know what happened."
With players running on and off, Rivera was concerned the Panthers would be penalized for having too many men on the field. After the timeout, Kasay drilled the 46-yard field goal to give the Saints a 20-13 halftime lead.
Kasay, who also made kicks of 23 and 37 yards, said the Panthers look different than last season, when they had the NFL's worst offense and finished 2-14.
"They move the ball, they score. The offense is very dynamic," Kasay said. "They're going to give a lot of people a lot of trouble. They've been in every game. They've all been like this."
The outcomes have been the problem.