Slow start catches up to Saints

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In his two decades of ownership, Tom Benson thought he had seen his New Orleans Saints eliminated from playoff contention in virtually ever manner imaginable. And then came Sunday afternoon and, with it, an even crueler form of torture.

Call it, for lack of a better term, misery by monitor.

Surrounded by players and assistant coaches, gazing up at a television screen mounted in the visitor's locker room at Bank of America Stadium, Benson watched as St. Louis kicker Jeff Wilkins knocked home a 31-yard field goal in overtime to lift the Rams over the New York Jets and bump the Saints from the final NFC playoff berth. The winning kick came, typically for a New Orleans team that for years has worn misfortune like a hair shirt, after former Saints kicker Doug Brien was wide on a 53-yarder in the extra session that would have made the Jets a winner.

In fact, one New Orleans official, standing just inside the locker room door when the club finally opened its sanctuary to the media, allowing the press to mingle with the players as they anxiously viewed the Rams-Jets overtime session, audibly cursed Brien, cut by head coach Jim Haslett in a 2001 salary cap-related move. Yep, in true voodoo fashion, even the mistakes of former Saints players transpired on this day to keep the team out of the playoffs once again.

As for Mr. Benson, well, he didn't curse. He didn't throw things, as did some players, or kick at the floor, like one franchise functionary.

He watched the inevitable, turned as Wilkins' kick split the uprights, and noted quietly to no one in particular: "Oh, well."

Oh, well, indeed.

This is how things are for the Saints, a team that actually played up to its nickname in the past month, with a season-ending four-game winning streak, including Sunday's 21-18 victory, but a team that will pay for its earlier transgressions by sitting out the playoffs for the 33rd time in 38 seasons.

How many other teams could win and then, about 40 minutes after the victory, find out they were losers? There have been a few, for sure, but it should come as no surprise that the star-crossed Saints are in a limited but dubious subset.

It was supposed to have been a game of "Survivor" on Sunday, with the assumption that the beleaguered and self-destructive Rams would lose to the Jets, and that the victor in the NFC South bloodletting here would squeeze into the final wild-card slot. With officials from both teams phoning updates on the Jets-Rams game to their respective benches, the contest became even more heated at times than most matchups between these rivals.

In the end, the Wilkins field goal rendered the afternoon moot, but did not diminish the fact both teams here somehow stumbled into the season finale with an opportunity to get into the playoffs. The injury-riddled Panthers, of course, opened the season 1-7. And the characteristically underachieving Saints were 4-8 only a month ago, with rampant reports that Haslett would be fired, and that a major shakeup would ensue.

There was no such talk on Sunday evening, as the Panthers went dejectedly into the night, and the Saints made their way toward the idling buses with some players manifesting no small degree of distress. Tempers got a bit heated during the game, and even more so in the New Orleans locker room as players anxiously paced while awaiting the outcome of the Rams' contest, but Haslett displayed calm even while registering disappointment.

"It's a shame, because we're probably the hottest team in the NFC right now, and don't get the chance to show what we could do in the playoffs," said Haslett, who now appears a very solid bet to return for the 2005 season, if he so chooses. "We dug a hole early and we couldn't get all the way out of it. But I give credit to our players today. They fought back this month, really hung in, and gave themselves a shot."

That the Saints would display any level of gumption, given their December meltdowns of the past, was surprising. But a month ago, Haslett, who acknowledged this has not been an easy season for him, turned a deaf ear to the critics and turned his team loose, told the players to have some fun.

Haslett will never confess this, but his rationale was that, if he was going to lose his job, he might as well lose it playing football his way. On offense, even though Haslett had been critical of Deuce McAllister for allegedly being overweight, the Saints went back to more of a power game. Defensively, coordinator Rick Venturi incorporated more single-coverage looks and, up front, New Orleans pinned its collective ears back and got after the opposition quarterbacks.

It was a simple yet effective formula that worked well down the stretch, and was obvious on Sunday, as the Saints controlled the line of scrimmage much of the day.

McAllister rushed for 140 yards on 28 carries, including a 71-yard burst off the left side in the first quarter that set up the Saints' first touchdown. Enigmatic quarterback Aaron Brooks was sharp in stretches, averaged 15.4 yards per completion and, most important, didn't make a mental or physical faux pas. Loquacious wide receiver Joe Horn and steady running mate Jerome Pathon each had seven catches for a combined 153 yards.

But as has been the case for the past month, when the Saints surrendered just one fourth-quarter touchdown in their last four outings, the defense carried the day against Carolina. Starting a pair of rookie linebackers, New Orleans flew to the ball, and the secondary did an excellent job of limiting Panthers wideout Muhsin Muhammad early on. It was the New Orleans front four, however, that most dominated.

"To be honest," said Panthers left guard Travelle Wharton, "we just got whipped."

That's for sure. The Saints sacked Jake Delhomme six times, all from the defensive front, and knocked him down at least eight more times. Left end Charles Grant, with six tackles and two sacks, was consistently in the Carolina backfield. Darren Howard, likely playing his final game for the Saints before departing in free agency, had 1½ sacks while lining up at end and tackle. Rising star Will Smith, the team's first-round draft choice in 2004, also had 1½ sacks.

It was, several Saints players ruefully allowed, a peek at how New Orleans might have peaked in the playoffs. Because of Wilkins' game-winning field goal several hundred miles from here, neither the Saints nor anyone else will know now just how long the club could have ridden its hot streak.

So in the end, the Saints will go into the offseason the way they have most of them, with a talented roster that again fell short. It is not a team that requires considerable overhauling, but which does need more consistency, and certainly an influx of character. It could be an interesting few weeks coming up, especially if Haslett tries to force the issue of control in personnel matters, as is anticipated.

But, oh well. Much of this is what the Saints always seem to be about. Flawed talent, a dose of front office uncertainty, unfulfilled potential.

"The positive thing is that we took care of our business today," said Grant, shaking his head as he pulled on an undershirt. "The frustrating thing is that it wasn't enough."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.