Sean Payton still confident despite latest road struggles

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton looks on from the sidelines in the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone) Show caption
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton looks on from the sidelines in the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

“We played with great passion, great energy and did the things necessary to win a football game — just came up short in the end. We didn’t get the win — but we play like (that, and) we’re going to get plenty of them.” SEAN PAYTON, Saints head coach

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

When coach Sean Payton moved to the podium and faced the media Sunday night, the 31/2-game lead that the Saints held over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South five weeks into the season had evaporated.

Carolina had just beaten New Orleans 17-13 after wide receiver Domenik Hixon caught his first touchdown of the year on a 14-yard pass from Cam Newton with 23 seconds left. The Panthers (11-4 after starting the season 1-3) denied the Saints (10-5 after beginning the year 5-0) a win that would’ve given New Orleans the NFC South title, the No. 2 seed in the conference, a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage for at least the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Saints would’ve gotten into the playoffs if Arizona (10-5) lost to Seattle (12-3) later Sunday, but the Cardinals upset the Seahawks 17-10. Now, to qualify for the playoffs, New Orleans must beat Tampa Bay (4-11) this coming Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome; or Arizona (10-5) must lose Sunday vs. San Francisco (10-4); or the 49ers (10-4) must lose to Atlanta (4-10) at home Monday and then at Arizona. New Orleans also can still win the NFC South — and land the No. 2 NFC playoff seed — with a win against the Buccaneers and a Panthers loss Sunday at Atlanta.

Still, Payton was not upset. In his words, he was “proud.”

“We played with great passion, great energy and did the things necessary to win a football game — just came up short in the end,” he said. “We didn’t get the win — but we play like (that, and) we’re going to get plenty of them.”

Payton had seen the Saints outgain the Panthers 365-222 in total yards. In rushing, the Saints outgained Carolina 126-81, and their 81 plays on offense were 37 more than the Panthers ran.

They stopped the Panthers on all nine of their third-down attempts. On three of those, Curtis Lofton, Cam Jordan and Junior Galette sacked Newton. He was dropped behind the line of scrimmage a fourth time by Akiem Hicks, giving the Saints nine sacks of Newton dating to Dec. 8, when New Orleans decidedly defeated Carolina 31-13 in the Superdome.

“We did what we needed to do running the football,” Payton said. “We did what we needed to do defensively.”

But with rookie Terron Armstead making his first start at left tackle following the benching of veteran Charles Brown, the Saints allowed the Panthers to sack Drew Brees a season-high six times — the most since that infamous 2011 defeat in St. Louis to an 0-6 Rams team.

Armstead’s man, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, was credited with half of those sacks.

Brees (30-of-44 for 281 yards and a touchdown) also tossed two interceptions. One of them set up Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams’ 43-yard touchdown, his longest rush of the year.

The Saints failed to convert a fake field goal from Carolina’s 34 in the third quarter, which robbed New Orleans of an opportunity to score while down 7-6. They got no points off a first-quarter interception by safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose pick was New Orleans’ first since a Nov. 17 win at home against San Francisco.

The Saints orchestrated a 97-yard TD drive to go ahead 13-10 with 6:37 left, and they subsequently forced Carolina into two three-and-outs.

But, on their next two possessions, they moved the ball a total of minus-1 yard; used up only 2 minutes, 2 seconds of game clock; and punted twice.

Payton’s play call on the fake and the final two ill-fated offensive drives inspired widespread second-guessing from Saints fans on social media and elsewhere. The coach didn’t talk about those decisions after the game.

Nonetheless, Newton got the ball back with less than a minute left and no timeouts, and he needed just 32 seconds to complete 3 of 4 passes for 65 yards and the game-winning score.

“That’s why we play this game,” said Newton, who finished with a tweaked ankle. “We practice to flourish in these situations.”

Carolina visits Atlanta this Sunday, and the Panthers will win the NFC South if they get past the Falcons (or the Saints lose to Tampa Bay). In that case, if the Saints make the playoffs, they’ll need to travel in the wild-card round.

The Saints haven’t won a road playoff game in their 47-year history, but Payton wasn’t in the mood to discuss the past.

“We’ll bounce back,” he said. “These guys are resilient.”