The Carolina Panthers are still the NFL’s only undefeated team 12 games into the season.
The New Orleans Saints are 4-8.
It seems like an enormous gulf separates these two franchises, and it does. The Panthers are talking home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Saints are talking about jockeying for first-round draft pick status.
And yet, and this has to be the most maddening part if you are part of or care anything about the Saints, these teams haven’t been that far apart at all on the field. Not when they’ve played each other. New Orleans managed its way through a Drew Brees-less game at Carolina and came up just short in a 27-22 defeat in September. On Sunday, they batted the lead back and forth over the net with the Panthers like a pair of baseline volley devotees and again came up just short 41-38, Carolina scoring the winning touchdown with 65 seconds to play.
In this remarkable 12-0 start, the Panthers have played only two games closer than the ones they’ve played with the Saints: a four-point win at Seattle and an overtime victory against Indianapolis.
But they won. They won them all. The Panthers are finding ways to win and seeing their confidence grow week by week like the 2009 Saints did. Remember that 13-0 start on the way to the Super Bowl?
Meanwhile, the Saints just find ways for things to go wrong.
Exhibit A: The Saints already led 7-0 after forcing an early Carolina punt, and on the next possession Delvin Breaux picked off Cam Newton and lugged his loot 22 yards to the Panthers’ 20. New Orleans had a gift-wrapped early Christmas present, the chance to put Carolina in a double-digit hole and let some of the air out of its swagger.
Instead, this is what happened: Incomplete pass to Josh Hill. Run by Mark Ingram for no gain. Middle screen from Brees to the incredibly seldom-used C.J. Spiller (he was targeted only one other time and didn’t run the ball) for no gain. Kai Forbath’s 38-yard field goal try sailed just wide of the right upright.
These are the things that happen when you’re 4-7, now 4-8. The Saints’ frustration, compounded by the fact that on Carolina’s next possession the Jacques-on-the-spot Saint of the day, Stephone Anthony, kept the play going when virtually everyone else stopped and returned a Jonathan Stewart fumble 31 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead that coulda, woulda, shoulda been 17-0 or 21-0.
The Panthers looked stunned at that moment, teetering. One more Saints score would have probably pushed Carolina over the edge, had the Panthers thinking how they had already clinched the NFC South thanks to Atlanta’s shocking freefall to 6-6 (along with Tampa Bay) and how they could regroup at home next week against those same Falcons.
Instead, Carolina found its second wind. It chipped back and got within 16-13 at halftime, unfazed by Anthony posting the NFL’s first return of a blocked extra point for a two-point score.
That’s what winning teams do. They don’t panic. They find a way. Meanwhile, teams like the Saints start turning the ball over and blowing coverages (not an uncommon occurrence this season, of course) and let a chance at an epic, potentially season-saving upset simply ... just ... evaporate.
“It stinks,” Ingram said succinctly. “It pretty much stinks. We had a lot of good things happen. It stinks.”
Brees talked about not knowing mathematically about whether the Saints still have a chance at the playoffs with four games to go. The fact of the matter is, even if they do, they don’t. Some other sinkhole will open up in another game, some other demons will crash their party, some mistake or missed assignment or turnover will consign them to enough losses to complete the math equation and end the hope that really is nothing but a mirage.
The Saints were oh so close to the Panthers. Twice. And yet eight games separate them in the standings.
It’s the little things that add up to a huge gulf. The gulf that exists between the good teams, the true contenders and teams of championship timber — and what the Saints have become.