CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Saints tight end Jimmy Graham knows NFL teams can never assume they have a win in hand when they’re up only three points and there’s still almost seven minutes to play.
Still, upon catching a 5-yard touchdown pass Sunday that put New Orleans up 13-10 over the Carolina Panthers with 6:37 to go in the fourth quarter, “I was excited, that’s for sure,” said Graham, whose score capped a 97-yard drive.
Graham ultimately was right to remain tempered. After each team traded punts twice, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton got the ball back with 55 seconds left. He completed one pass for a gain of 37 yards and another for 14 to put the Panthers at New Orleans’ 14.
Then, Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins charged in on a blitz, but he landed only a glancing blow with his left arm on Newton. The young quarterback stepped up and threw a low pass to Domenik Hixon, who had not caught a TD this season but outraced cornerback Corey White on an out pattern and scooped up the 14-yard score inches from the ground.
The play helped Carolina go up 17-13 with 23 seconds to go, and New Orleans lost after it could move only 31 yards to the Panthers’ 46 on the following drive.
Hixon’s heroics brought to mind those of New England’s Kenbrell Thompkins, who caught a 17-yard TD with 5 seconds left in an Oct. 13 game that visiting New Orleans lost 30-27.
Now, instead of going down in Saints lore as a dramatic sequence that clinched the NFC South title, the 97-yard drive in which Drew Brees had gone 4-for-4 for 75 yards and a TD to Graham was reduced to a meaningless footnote as the Panthers avenged a Dec. 8 loss to the Saints and seized control of the division.
“You never know in this league,” said Graham, whose 15 TDs this year are a Saints record and the second-most ever for an NFL tight end. “There was too much time left on the clock ... and it just comes down to that.”
Added Brees: “That (drive) was big. ... That’s what good teams do. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, they were able to make some plays and beat us.”
The 97-yard drive, which tied a season-long, provided the Saints and their fans the fleeting hope that they’d overcome two Brees interceptions, thrown to linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. The latter had 24 tackles and became the first player since 2001 to finish with 20 or more tackles and a pick in a game.
Davis’ interception set up a 43-yard TD run by running back DeAngelo Williams, a season-long rush for him that put the Panthers up 7-6 with 1:45 left in the second quarter.
The interceptions by Brees (30-of-44 for 281 yards, a TD and an interception) were far from the only miscues on offense for a Saints team that has now lost five of its past six road games. He was sacked six times, the most since 2011.
Half of those sacks were credited to Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy. He was working against rookie Terron Armstead, who was making his first start at left tackle in place of benched veteran Charles Brown.
There was a failed fake field goal that prevented the Saints from scoring points in the third quarter while only down 7-6. The Saints also got no points after Jenkins picked Newton off on the game’s opening drive.
The defense — which lost rookie Kenny Vaccaro to a leg injury in the first quarter — held Carolina to 0-for-9 on third-down attempts. They limited Newton to 181 yards on 13-of-22 passing and 6 rushing yards; for his career, he was averaging about 281 yards from scrimmage per game.
It didn’t help Newton that star receiver Steve Smith left the game with a knee injury in the first quarter. He was sacked four times, three of which were on third down, preceded two punts and held the Panthers to a field goal.
All of that helped New Orleans outgain Carolina 365-222 and 126-81 on the ground. That let the Saints run 81 plays on offense — 37 more than what the Panthers dialed up.
Had the Saints won, they would have taken the NFC South title and earned a first-round bye as well as home-field advantage for the divisional round of the playoffs.
New Orleans can still win the NFC South and land the No. 2 with a victory against the Buccaneers (4-11) at home this coming Sunday — but now they must hope the Falcons, their nemeses and a 4-10 team, beat the Panthers in Atlanta, too.
Failing that, if New Orleans loses to Tampa Bay, Arizona (10-5) must lose against San Francisco (10-4), or the 49ers must lose at home to Atlanta on Monday and then at Arizona for the Saints to be a wild-card entry.
“This loss stings, but everything is still in front of us,” Jenkins said. “It just might be a different road than we wanted.”