NEW ORLEANS -- By the time it finally ended, Kris Jenkins could barely walk off the field. Every step was a labor, as he trudged slowly toward a place where the feet were barely touching the ground.
Everyone else heading toward the Carolina Panthers' locker room was jubilant, marveling at what just occurred -- a miracle 16-13 win over New Orleans.
"These fans are looking around like 'What just happened here,'" defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu said, laughing as he walked past.
But Jenkins, sweat-soaked and dragging, hardly looked up as he moved toward the locker room, where the hugs and high-fives were flying and the joyous shouts were ringing out. After questioning the passion and heart of the team early in the week, it looked as if he had none of either left, his reserves completely drained.
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But at the last moment, Jenkins' eyes flashed a little as secondary coach Tim Lewis said the words that encapsulated one of the most bizarre afternoons in franchise history.
"Something changed here today," Lewis cried out in the Louisiana Superdome tunnel as Jenkins approached, drawing one of the first of many hard-won smiles from a team that desperately needed something to feel good about.
The Panthers took the win on the left foot of veteran kicker John Kasay, whose 52-yarder as time expired capped the wild ride. But by that time, the game had swung so wildly, there was no person the Panthers would have rather had deciding things.
"It depends on who you got," coach John Fox replied when asked of his confidence in Kasay. "With the guy we got, I'm real confident."
The same couldn't be said of the rest of the game, which tried many times and with great vigor to get away from them.
Backup quarterback David Carr suffered what he initially thought was a career-ending back injury, but came back to lead the offense to just enough. Steve Smith was held in check most of the day, but he lunged forward for a late-first down, which allowed the Panthers to kill all the time they needed to before Kasay's final act of heroism.
The defense couldn't get off the field for much of the afternoon, but made key stops when it needed to. Julius Peppers still didn't get a sack, but he did block a 20-yard field goal in the fourth quarter -- the final play of a 24-play, 10 minute and 22 second Saints parade which should have been the Panthers' funeral procession.
And even when it appeared they had done enough, made the big dramatic play, it still wasn't over.
After the Panthers tied the game at 13, they got the ball back with 3:00 left after safety Chris Harris made a flying-leap interception. But Carr gave it back 16 seconds later, throwing his own pick that gave the Saints the ball at the Panthers' 37.
But the defense again stood, forcing Olindo Mare into 54-yard field goal attempt he probably wasn't healthy enough to realistically try, and when he missed it left, there was yet another chance for the Panthers.
"That game wouldn't have been complete if I hadn't have thrown that interception and they hadn't stopped them," Carr said, able to laugh because it worked out. "I've never been in a football game like that before. ... It was phenomenal. I wasn't here when they went to the Super Bowl, but I'm walking up to all the defensive guys thanking them for stopping them. It was like my life was out there on the line. It felt like they picked it up and stepped up for me.
"They were saying that's the kind of feeling they had in '03 when they made that run, guys stepped up and made plays for each other. Once that starts happening, a football team can be pretty dangerous."
There were elements of danger in their own house over the previous week, as tensions bubbled after Jenkins questioned the team's character in the aftermath of their humiliating loss to Tampa Bay. Then came the closed-door, players-only meeting.
"It was a tough week around the office," right tackle Jordan Gross said. "We definitely had a lot to talk about and a lot of questions that were being asked."
Others, who might have been the target of some of Jenkins' pointed talk, underlined how potentially explosive the situation was.
"All of that talk was nonsense, really, to me, you know," Peppers said. "I'm not taking away from what Kris said because to a certain extent I agree with him on that, but you can't go out and say the team has no heart, and I think it rubbed some guys the wrong way and they came out and played today."
When approached by reporters in the locker room, Jenkins looked refreshed, grinning and saying: "Do I need to explain it?
"The intention was to challenge my teammates," he continued. "We know we play like this. It's not one person that makes this team, it's the whole team. And some people have good weeks and some bad; I didn't feel like I had greatest of weeks. But when 11 people play the game on both sides of the ball and special teams, that's what helps you to win. It's not always the Xs and Os and the skill set, it's just the integrity you have when it's stacked against you.
"It didn't look good at all points in the game, but we found a way. That's what I feel we've been missing. We've been missing that camaraderie, that teamwork, that love for the game. That's what I felt we had this week, we got that back. If we keep building on this, on this game and in this fashion, we'll be a special team."
• Panthers notebook • 6B