A week after giving up sole possession of first place in the NFC South with a woeful road performance, the Carolina Panthers were determined to prove they were different than the maddeningly inconsistent non-playoff teams of the past two years.
On Sunday, they again looked like one of the NFL’s best in a 30-7 rout of the New Orleans Saints, who quickly unraveled after Reggie Bush left with a knee injury and Jeremy Shockey perhaps reinjured his groin.
Carolina (5-2) has home wins over Atlanta, Kansas City and New Orleans by a combined 88-16. But also the Panthers had a 27-3 loss at Tampa Bay last weekend.
“You have that nasty taste in your mouth until you play another game,” Harris said. “We still thought about it, because we were pretty much embarrassed last week. So we had to come out and do something about it.”
Brees, who came in leading the NFL in completions and yards passing, was hounded all day and struggled with his accuracy. The Saints couldn’t overcome the loss of Bush in the first half and were smothered by the Panthers’ improved defense.
“I thought we got beat in every area,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
The return of Shockey and Marques Colston from injuries not only didn’t provide a boost to the offense, Shockey lost a fumble that led to Stewart’s 18-yard TD run in his first game back from hernia surgery. A clearly frustrated Shockey said in the locker room he felt “60 percent worse” than before the game, and questioned how the Saints have handled the injury.
“It’s embarrassing because I have a reputation I want to uphold,” Shockey said. “I play hard. It’s hard when you do it on one leg.”
Carolina twice stopped New Orleans (3-4) on fourth down in the second half. Julius Peppers had a sack and a forced fumble and the Panthers posted another lopsided home win to improve to 4-0 at Bank of America Stadium.
Delhomme, 7-2 against his former team, threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to a double-covered Smith, and a 4-yard TD to DeAngelo Williams in the third quarter when the Panthers pulled away.
“I think, honestly, we hardly made any mistakes offensively compared to that debacle that we had last week down in Tampa,” said Smith, who had six catches for 122 yards and caught his TD pass after he had hit the turf in heavy traffic.
Brees, who had thrown for at least 320 yards in four straight games, completed 21 of 39 passes for 231 yards and no touchdowns. Ken Lucas intercepted him in the third quarter, leading to Williams’ touchdown that made it 27-7.
“That’s a big turning point in the game,” Brees said. “I put that on myself.”
By then, Bush was in the locker room. Coming in with an NFL-best 41 receptions, Bush hobbled off the field after a punt return late in the first half after aggravating a left knee injury that kept him out of practice some last week. Bush was to travel to Alabama to see knee specialist Dr. James Andrews.
“Of course we’re going to miss him, and I hope he’s not out very long,” Brees said.
Brees uncharacteristically struggled with his accuracy and had three balls batted down in the first half. It didn’t help that center Jonathan Goodwin left in the second quarter with a left knee injury.
The Saints’ lone touchdown was aided by a 15-yard penalty on cornerback Richard Marshall, leading to Mike Karney’s 1-yard run. Later, Brees overthrew Devery Henderson for what would have been a touchdown after he had beaten Marshall in single coverage.
Colston also dropped two balls as he played with a splint protecting his left thumb, and New Orleans fell to 0-3 on the road to begin a five-week stretch away from the Superdome.
While the Saints—without Bush—were scheduled to fly directly to London on Sunday night to begin preparations for next week’s game against San Diego at Wembley Stadium, the Panthers get to stay home to face Arizona (4-2) feeling good about their fortunes.
“I don’t think it’s a statement game,” Smith said. “It’s just another game that we get to put in the win column, and the closer and closer we get to 10, the easier and easier it gets and we can relax and start looking at games in January and February.”
C Matt Lehr replaced Goodwin for the Saints. “We’re a little bit more encouraged with Goodwin’s (injury) and a little bit more discouraged with Reggie’s,” Payton said. … The Panthers were also without starting C Ryan Kalil (ankle) and RT Jeff Otah (ankle). … Panthers K John Kasay kicked three field goals and is 14-for-14 on the season.