NEW ORLEANS — Pardon the New Orleans Saints and their fans if they saw Sunday what they’ve seen so many times this frustrating season.
What they saw was a lot of inconsistency on both sides of the ball and on special teams in a 44-38 season-ending setback to the Carolina Panthers that sealed the deal on the Saints’ first losing record since 2007 — Sean Payton’s second season with the team.
“At the end of the day, this game is kind of a microcosm of the season,” said Saints tackle Zach Strief. “We were inconsistent … and that’s what killed us.”
The Saints were done in first by a slow-starting offense, before the Panthers took advantage of the worst defense statistically in NFL history to score 28 straight points and turn a 24-13 third-quarter deficit into a runaway.
“It was totally unacceptable what happened today,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said as he began his postgame remarks.
Along the way, the Saints were stung by a controversial non-fumble call against the Panthers in the third quarter by the officiating crew headed up by referee Al Riveron.
After trailing 10-0 midway through the second quarter on a 20-yard Graham Gano field goal and the first of Mike Tolbert’s three 1-yard touchdown runs, which was set up on a 65-yard dash by DeAngelo Williams, the Saints bounced back with two touchdowns of their own.
Drew Brees threw a 7-yard TD pass to Marques Colston before linebacker Jonathan Vilma intercepted a Cam Newton screen pass and returned it 18 yards untouched for the touchdown that gave the Saints their first lead of the day.
After Gano kicked a 31-yard field goal to trim the deficit to 14-13, the Saints took control of the game.
Garrett Hartley kicked a 53-yard field goal, which tied his career-long, on the final play of the first half before Brees directed an 80-yard drive capped by a 19-yard TD pass to tight end Jimmy Graham on their first series of the second half to cap a 24-3 run and take control of the game at 24-13.
But that’s where everything went terribly wrong for the Saints.
On the second play after the ensuing kickoff, Newton threw a short pass to tight end Greg Olsen, who fumbled the ball while being tackled by safety Roman Harper. Cornerback Johnny Patrick appeared to recover, but an official ruled that Olsen’s knee was down before the fumble.
After the officials huddled, they ruled it a fumble but Patrick stepped out of bounds with his right foot in making the recovery.
Vitt challenged the ruling, but Riveron upheld the call because he said there was no indisputable evidence on the replay to overturn it.
NFL observer Ron Baynes, a retired official who is now a supervisor, said Riveron couldn’t overturn the call because he could not tell from the TV replays if Patrick’s foot was in or out.
“You have got to have indisputable evidence that the recovery was a clear recovery,” Baynes, who was stationed in the press box, told a pool reporter. “(Riveron) didn’t have a clear shot on the replay and couldn’t tell if the right foot was in bounds or out of bounds.”
“The referee didn’t get the same angle as we did on the (video board) in his review and couldn’t see it, so it is what it is,” a disappointed Vitt said. “Every call is not going to go your way.”
Vitt, in fact, seemed more upset with what happened immediately after that.
The Saints had the Panthers backed up to their own 12 one play later with a third-and-18 when Newton connected with Louis Murphy on a 34-yard pass along the sideline that set up a 54-yard TD run by Williams.
“When it comes to third-and-18, you can’t get beat over the top of your head,” Vitt said. “It’s unacceptable, but it is what it is.”
Then, Brees was intercepted by Panthers safety Charles Godfrey at the Saints’ 36, which led to another 1-yard run by Tolbert to regain the lead at 27-24.
A punt by the Saints was turned into an 80-yard drive to a 1-yard Tolbert run before a 69-yard punt return by Armanti Edwards set up Williams, who rushed for 210 yards on 21 carries, for a 12-yard TD run.
All that came after the Saints’ defense set an NFL record in the first half in giving up 287 yards to the Panthers, which brought the Saints’ total to 6,799 for the season. That broke the single-season record of 6,793 yards allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
The Saints gave up 530 yards on Sunday — matching their season high — and finished with 7,042 yards given up, or 440.1 yards per game. The Panthers finished with 273 rushing yards and averaged 7.0 yards per carry.
Vitt refused to say that the no-fumble call on Olsen took the life out of the Saints even though they would have had the ball deep in Panthers’ territory with an 11-point lead.
“It’s not an excuse,” he said. “If it did (take the life out of them), it’s our fault. You have to play the game out. It’s not a perfect game played by perfect people. It’s not a perfect game officiated by perfect officials.
“The fact of the matter is the game didn’t go our way. Either you rebound or you don’t, and we didn’t.”
“Calls are going to be made, but we have to answer the bell when our number is called,” Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “We want a call that potentially could go our way to go our way and it didn’t. They didn’t have the correct camera angle to overturn the call, and that was unfortunate.”
“From that point on, they had the momentum,” said Brees, who completed 29 of 43 passes for 396 yards with four TDs and one interception. “They get that touchdown, then we have a turnover and they get another touchdown.
“Then, they get the punt return in the fourth quarter. It just seemed like something over and over again.”
And as they were for a good portion of the season, the Saints defense was powerless to stop the Panthers.
“(We played) inconsistent,” Vilma said. “Some games we play lights out. Other games, we’ll give up 44 points and who knows how many yards. You can’t win like that in this league, and it shows.”