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Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Carolina Panthers tight end Brandon Williams, left, tussles with Saints outside linebacker Ronald Powell in the end zone Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Williams was ejected for throwing a punch in the melee.

The good, the bad and then... the Saints.

It started ugly Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers, continued that way in all aspects of this NFC South matchup and ended with an embarrassing, exhausting 41-10 rout at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The final score marked the worst loss for the Saints under coach Sean Payton since 2007. NFC playoffs? Not at this losing rate.

(Click here to see the postgame comments from Saints coach Sean Payton.)

The Saints (5-8), trying to recover from earlier setbacks this season, lost a game which was vital to their postseason hopes. Even worse, they looked unprepared, unable to cope with Cam Newton's many runs, Greg Olsen's many catches, Drew Brees' worst outing since joining the Saints in 2006.

In a throwback to the 'Aints of the 1970s and 80s, most of the fans exited the building long before the final play, shocked that a franchise which has struggled so much this season discovered a new level of inept execution.

Now, only continued missteps by Atlanta (5-7) or to a lesser degree, Carolina (4-8-1) can save the Saints from falling even further during the final weeks of the season. After all, somebody from this division has to make the playoffs, if only for one week. The Falcons play at Green Bay (9-3) on Monday night. On Sunday, Newton threw a season-high three touchdowns and ran for another, taking advantage of any opportunity to tease the crowd. Hard to believe that weeks ago, the Saints defense, on the road, held Newton to his worse performance as a pro. Not this time.

Figuratively, the best defensive effort of the game occurred after Newton scored from two yards midway through the second quarter. After a quick review by officials, the play was upheld, and Newton wanted to celebrate "Superman" style, his signature TD celebration.

With Saints players idling nearby, Newton started his gesture, pretending to rip off his jersey, a superhero outfit underneath. Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton took exception, shoving Newton, the start of a melee which knocked open the end zone barrier. Even that humbug may have been lost by the Saints.

In 2007, the Saints lost the opening game of the season 41-10 at Indianapolis. Sunday's loss, though, stung worse considering the Super Bowl expectations on the 2014 squad.

Such expectations are no longer a reality. Carolina entered Sunday's game as losers of its last six. The Saints, up and down all season, looked to be on an upswing, coming off last week's road win at Pittsburgh. So much for numbers.