The common refrain from the Carolina locker room after a 31-21 road loss to the Saints summarized the afternoon in simple terms: We didn't do our job.
"When we’re doing our job, we’re hard to stop," said Panthers center Ryan Kalil. "That’s what it came down to today."
The Panthers (8-4), tied atop the NFC South standings to start the game, effectively dropped two games back of the Saints (9-3) after New Orleans completed the season sweep in the Superdome. They dropped into the chase position, they said, because they did not meet their challenge of being the more physical team Sunday.
For the vast majority of the game, the Saints bottled up the Panthers' potent rushing attack. Carolina came into Sunday's game leading the NFL in time of possession per game (33:02), but New Orleans flipped the script Sunday, forcing Carolina into five three-and-outs as it held the ball for 33:21.
"We had too many three-and-outs as an offense, and that’s contingent on my performance," said Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
The Panthers entered Sunday’s game playing for first place in the NFC South standings in part because their offense had found an identity lately with its three-headed rushing attack.
Carolina had won four consecutive games prior to Sunday's loss, averaging 185 yards and nearly two touchdowns per game on the ground in that stretch. Its three best rushing efforts of the season had come in its past three games, gaining 201, 294 and 145 yards rushing, respectively.
But the Saints attacking front largely stifled that ground game Sunday, limiting the Panthers to 112 yards on the ground — 32 on a fourth-quarter scramble by Newton.
"They’re definitely a good (defensive) front," said Panthers guard Trai Turner. "We had some opportunities, I think we missed them."
Newton had been just as big a part as running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey in the Panthers' recent success on the ground.
He had accounted for 253 of Carolina’s 740 yards rushing in the four-game streak, but he found the going slow Sunday against the Saints.
When New Orleans brought a pass rush, it did not allow Newton to evade it. When the Panthers called a designed run for Newton — and there were few — the Saints kept Newton in front of them.
"I hit Cam a couple times today; I got in his face a couple times," said Saints defensive end Cam Jordan. "... We played the power option well. We tuned into exactly what they wanted to do, and we edged out a win."
Newton's 32-yard run late in the fourth quarter bumped his overall rushing statistics to a respectable 6 carries for 51 yards, but he was largely held in check before that.
"I’m not sure (the reason)," Newton said. "It wasn’t as if the game plan didn’t dictate me trying to run."
Neither Stewart nor McCaffrey was able to find any footing against the Saints’ run defense, either.
The Panthers running backs combined for just 61 yards on 17 carries, a 3.6-yards per carry average. Stewart scored on a 2-yard rushing touchdown and McCaffrey added a 21-yard touchdown through the air, but the longest run between the pair went for just 10 yards.
The Panthers converted just as many first downs by Saints penalties (four) as they did on running plays.
"We just didn't do our job," said McCaffrey, who ran for 16 yards on six carries.