CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Tom Benson crowded around a tiny television, the fate of his football team resting on the outcome of a game being played halfway across the country.
As the St. Louis Rams won in overtime to eliminate New Orleans from playoff contention, the Saints’ owner shuffled off in disappointment as a heavy silence fell over the locker room.
It was hardly the victory celebration the Saints had hoped for.
New Orleans finally won a game that mattered, beating the Carolina Panthers 21-18 on Sunday to stay in the playoff hunt. But when the Rams beat the New York Jets 15 minutes later, the Saints’ season was over.
“We just came up a little short,” Benson said as he trudged past his dejected players. “We’ve got a hell of a ball club. Anyone who did what we did this year has a hell of a ball club.”
What the Saints (8-8) did was rally to win their final four games to at least have a shot at the playoffs. In doing so, they might have saved coach Jim Haslett’s job. Benson would not comment on Haslett, who was on the endangered list a month ago when the Saints were 4-8.
The Panthers (7-9) also had a late-season surge and headed into the finale with a chance to make the postseason. A victory over the Saints and some outside help would have gotten the defending NFC champions in after a 1-7 start.
“It stings because even starting out 1-7, down the stretch we still had our destiny in our own hands and we couldn’t close it out,” said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. “It was there for the taking. We had that chance and just didn’t take advantage of it.”
The Saints, who had one of the worst defenses in the NFL most of the season, turned it up against Carolina to wreak havoc on Jake Delhomme.
Delhomme, who spent five seasons as a backup in New Orleans before joining the Panthers last season, had his worst day in Carolina. He was sacked six times, had two costly fumbles and completed just 24-of-50 passes. He did pass for 307 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but his failure to find a rhythm desperately crippled Carolina.
“There is no explanation for it,” he said. “I had some chances to hit some guys and just didn’t. They did a great job of rushing the passer, probably the best pass rush we’ve faced all season.”
Still, he had the Panthers in position to tie the game at the end of regulation after two long passes and a hook-and-ladder set up John Kasay’s 60-yard field goal attempt.
But Tony Bryant blocked it, sealing the Saints win and sending them to the locker room to crowd around a single TV and alternate between cheering the Jets and cursing the Rams.
“It’s a shame because we’re probably the hottest team in the NFC right now and we don’t get a chance to show off what we can do in the playoffs,” Haslett said. “We dug a hole early and we couldn’t get out of it.”
The touchdown was impressive, capping a three-play drive that quickly answered a Carolina touchdown and put the Saints up 21-10 with 3:10 left in the third. His performance might be enough to silence his critics, who have angered him with a constant comparison to Delhomme.
Because the likable Delhomme is a Louisiana native, he was the fan favorite during his time backing up Brooks. It didn’t help that he won his first three meetings against the Saints, either.
Brooks finally cracked this week when asked again about Delhomme, complaining that Delhomme never capitalized on his chances in New Orleans. He also described Delhomme as a good quarterback with a great cast, while Brooks said he was the opposite: A great quarterback with a good cast.
So after beating Delhomme and the Panthers, it seemed as if Brooks would finally be at peace.
“I really don’t have much to say to none of y’all,” he said. “I said after the game that I’d be laughing at y’all, the fake experts in the media. All y’all been talking (expletive) on Aaron Brooks.”
NOTES:@ The Saints have not been to the playoffs since the 2000 season. … Deuce McAllister ran for 140 yards and a touchdown, and set up Aaron Stecker’s first quarter TD with a 71-yard run. … Horn’s score set the franchise record for touchdowns in a season with 11. He also owns the team mark for yards in a season with 1,399. … The Saints had four personal fouls, one leading to a shouting match between Haslett and safety Mel Mitchell on the sidelines. … Nick Goings had his worst game since becoming Carolina’s featured running back with 46 yards and a fumble.