After getting their heads handed to them in their first three games, the Saints were confident last week they were ready to end their season-opening three-game losing streak in Sunday's matchup with the Carolina Panthers.
Playing in the Superdome and coming off a 13-day rest that included a four-day respite from practice thanks to their bye, they were hungry to get a win and eager for a fresh start heading into the final 13 games of the season.
But after playing better on offense and defense for three quarters on Sunday, the fourth quarter did them in in a heartbreaking 16-13 loss to Carolina. The Panthers dodged a bullet early in the final period, when they could have gone down by 10 or 14 points, then scored 10 to claim the win.
Unlike the first three games, when they let things get out of hand much earlier, the Saints had a win squarely in their sights. Which, quarterback Drew Brees said, will make things tougher to come back from this time because of the way it happened.
"This game was in the bag and we let it out of the bag," said Brees, who threw two more interceptions and now has one touchdown and nine picks in four games. "The other three, we got beat. We just got beat. Today, we gave it away."
This time, the culprit was red-zone efficiency. The struggling Saints offense put together drives of 12, 19 and 24 plays, with two of them lasting more than 10 minutes, yet managed to get just six points out of them.
The toughest to take was a 24-play, 93-yard drive that took 10:22 off the clock at the end of the third quarter and the early part of the fourth period. With a 13-6 lead at that point, the Saints needed a field goal to force the sputtering Panthers to score twice to tie the game. But the Saints got nothing when Olindo Mare's 20-yard field-goal try was blocked by Julius Peppers.
That led to a Panthers touchdown, then several blunders on the Saints part, and finally, John Kasay's game-winning 52-yard field goal as time expired.
In addition to the blocked field goal, the Saints had a touchdown negated by an illegal-formation penalty on left tackle Jammal Brown because he was lined up too far behind the line of scrimmage.
"If we continue to make the dumb mistakes, drop as many passes, penalize ourselves on big plays, not take advantage of field position, then it's hard for that result to change," coach Sean Payton said. "To watch that game unfold the way that it did and for us to be sitting here with a loss is sickening."
The Saints are 0-4 for the first time since 1996, which was Jim Mora's final season as the team's head coach, going into Sunday night's nationally televised game at Seattle.
Under Mora, the winningest coach in franchise history, the Saints started 0-5 in both 1995 and '96. They rallied in 1995 to finish 7-9, but struggled to a 3-13 mark in 1996 after Mora stepped aside after eight games.
Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita missed a game for the first time in his six-year NFL career when he did not suit up for Sunday's contest with the Carolina Panthers.
Fujita's string of 86 consecutive games played (counting playoffs) ended because of a sprained right ankle, which he sustained in the team's last game with the Tennessee Titans. Fujita said he tested the ankle three hours before kickoff but he and medical personnel decided he wasn't 100 percent.
"I would have hurt the team even worse if I would've played," Fujita said.
Fujita said in August he had never even missed an exhibition game before suffering a freak heel injury during a team outing to a water park in training camp. That forced him to miss the final three preseason games.
It was Simmons' first start for the Saints. He had two solo tackles and an assist in the team's 16-13 loss to the Panthers.
To add depth to the roster at the position, the Saints signed Marvin Mitchell, a seventh-round draft pick this spring, from the practice squad prior to the game. The Saints waived quarterback Tyler Palko to make room on the roster for Mitchell.
All-Pro left tackle Jammal Brown was removed from the game by coach Sean Payton late in the second quarter after he was penalized for lining up too far behind the line of scrimmage.
The five-yard illegal-formation penalty, which was for not having enough players on the line of scrimmage, negated a 10-yard TD pass from Drew Brees to running back Aaron Stecker. Instead of taking a 10-6 lead to halftime, the Saints settled for a field goal and a 6-6 tie.
Brown was replaced for three plays by second-year pro Zach Strief, but started the second half and played the remainder of the game.
"I thought I was on the line," Brown said. "I was in my normal stance."
Going into Sunday's game, the Saints were one of two teams that had not scored in the first quarter. They finally scratched that when Olindo Mare kicked a 25-yard field goal with 3:27 to play in the opening period.
The only other team to enter play on Sunday without any first-quarter points was the Kansas City Chiefs. They failed to score against the Jacksonville Jaguars and now have been shut out in the first quarter of five games.
Saints coaches, management and game personnel wore pink ribbon pins and players used pink towels on the sideline to help support breast cancer awareness.
The Saints are now 8-11 all-time after a bye and 0-2 under Payton.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
SLB Brian Simmons started in place of Fujita against the Panthers.
DT Kendrick Clancy missed his second straight game with a turf toe injury and his availability for Sunday was not known Monday.
S Jay Bellamy, who has been bothered by a sprained left ankle, did not play against the Panthers and will be re-evaluated on Wednesday.
RCB Jason David did not play against the Panthers because of a fractured left forearm. He could return in three-to-five weeks.
RCB Jason Craft, who usually serves as the nickel cornerback, started in David's place against the Panthers.
SS Kevin Kaesviharn was the fifth defensive back on the field in the game with the Panthers.
P Steve Weatherford also kicked off against the Panthers because Olindo Mare was nursing a groin injury.
LB Marvin Mitchell was signed from the Saints practice squad to provide depth and play on special teams.
REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS
PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- For the first time this season, the Saints' once-explosive passing game showed some life. Drew Brees connected on 29 of 47 passes for 252 yards with a long of 54 yards that set up a second-quarter touchdown. Brees wasn't hurried as much as he has been and wasn't sacked, and he settled into a nice rhythm during several lengthy drives. But two interceptions and several drops did him in and dropped the overall grade. Wide receiver Devery Henderson caught four passes for 101 yards, but he also had two critical drops, including one that bounced off his hands and into the arms of a Panthers defender late in the game.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Playing for the first time without injured running back Deuce McAllister, the Saints had some positives in picking up 89 yards on 28 carries. The average wasn't great at 3.2 yards per attempt, but Reggie Bush showed a willingness to run between the tackles and turned the ball upfield quicker than he has in the past. He finished with a season-high 67 yards on a career-high 21 attempts and converted several third-and-short situations with tough inside runs. Backup Aaron Stecker also showed some toughness in gaining 12 yards on four carries.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Saints improved dramatically here although they did give up two more pass plays of 20 yards or more -- including a 43-yarder from third-string quarterback Matt Moore to Keary Colbert. He wound up with four receptions for 74 yards as Moore and starter David Carr hit on 11 of 19 passes for 162 yards with one interception. The Saints did a decent job of keeping All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith in check as he caught just four balls for 47 yards, but one of them was a 17-yard TD that tied the game with only 3:53 remaining. The Saints had decent pressure at times, but came up with only one sack -- which still was one more than they had in their first three games.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus -- Once again, the run defense was adequate with the Saints holding the Panthers to 88 yards and a 3.1 average on 28 attempts. While Carolina was at a serious disadvantage in time of possession, they had enough opportunities to run the ball and the Saints did a good job of shutting them down most of the day. DeShaun Foster gained a team-high 59 yards on 19 carries with a long of 12 and backup DeAngelo Williams added 23 yards on seven attempts with a long of 10 yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- The Saints had a good day covering kicks, holding the Panthers to just 6.0 yards on one punt return and 9.8 yards on four kickoffs. Rookie Pierre Thomas, who was active for the first time, also averaged 25.0 yards on four kickoff returns. But the rest of the day was a nightmare for the Saints, who averaged just 5.5 yards on two punt returns. Steve Weatherford averaged just 39.0 yards with a net of 36.0 on two punts and Olindo Mare was two-for-four on field goals, converting from 25 and 28 yards and missing from 54. He also had a low 20-yard attempt blocked.
COACHING: D -- Sean Payton gets credit for continuing to prepare and motivate his team for each game, but he might have made a big mistake for the game with the Panthers. First, Payton took a chance in not bringing in a kicker after Olindo Mare injured his groin in Wednesday's practice. Then, after Mare had a 20-yard field goal blocked because of low trajectory early in the fourth quarter, he sent Mare out for a 54-yard try with less than two minutes to play in a tie game. The kick was long enough but wide left, giving the Panthers the ball at their 44 and the field position they needed to easily move 21 yards to get in range for John Kasay's 52-yard field goal on the final play.