CHARLOTTE — Best way to describe the New Orleans Saints after this one: Baffled.
Baffled how they could outgain the Carolina Panthers by 143 yards and lose. Baffled they could hold the Panthers to zero third-down conversions and lose. Baffled they could make the Panthers drive from their own 35 in the final 55 seconds with no timeouts, and lose.
But lose they did, 17-13, on a 14-yard pass from Cam Newton to Domenik Hixon. And that baffled this defense.
“Honestly I felt like we never lost control,” said New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan. “I felt like we were in control the whole time.”
They’re no longer in control of anything. The Panthers would have to lose in Atlanta for the Saints to have any chance of winning the NFC South and claim the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. This loss brought back questions about blowing a similar lead late against the New England Patriots this season, and the Saints’ general malaise when they leave the Superdome.
Coach Sean Payton kept bringing up positives: How they had a better game plan than the previous week against the St. Louis Rams. How they executed with more precision, even when rain poured down, and they came from behind in the second half to take the lead.
But ultimately that team squandered a huge advantage, in terms of time and situation, allowing Newton to complete three throws of 14 or more yards within just 23 seconds of game clock.
“They had that one big play,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said of Newton’s 37-yard completion to cross midfield and get the Panthers at least in field-goal range. “That’s kind of what we defended (successfully) against the whole game.
“They were able to kind of squeeze one out once they needed it. We played it the exact same way. We just gave up that play, and they were able to get some yards after the catch that put them in position.”
That play changed how the Saints had to defend. Initially, with such a long field, they were looking for one big sack of Newton. Knowing Carolina was out of timeouts, such a sack might have made even a tying field-goal attempt out of reach.
Then things got tense, on the road, with the Panthers at minimum in a position to tie and potentially to win in regulation, 28 yards from the end zone.
“We were thinking, ‘Put pressure on him, put heat on him, but keep him contained,’ ” Jordan said of a Newton who’d been far short of precise much of the game.
“We kept it simple and that allowed us to play fast,” Jenkins said of the Saints’ defensive game plan. “No one was missing assignments.”
Not until the end, anyway, when Newton launched that ball into the end zone and the Panthers into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“The guy stepped up and made a great throw that was inches away from being an incompletion,” Jenkins said.
And, yes, Jenkins sounded baffled.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_Bonnell