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Saints crumble again, miss playoffs

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The New Orleans Saints were so close to the
playoffs -- just one victory away with three chances to get in.

Are the Saints' late-season collapses a product of preparation or mostly injuries and bad luck?
This is the second year in a row that such a late-season collapse has occurred for the Saints, and I think the problem is the defense. If your defense can't shut opponents down in November and December, you won't be playing in the playoffs. New Orleans needs to look at its defensive coordinator. The Saints aren't a solid, fundamentally sound defensive team -- and that comes back to coaching.

Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders.

But as they have so often, New Orleans will watch the postseason
after blowing all three games.

Sunday's finale might have been the most disheartening, with
Carolina cornerback Terry Cousin grabbing two interceptions and a
fumble to preserve the Panthers' 10-6 victory.

Atlanta even helped New Orleans by losing to Cleveland, 24-16,
but the Saints (9-7) could not take advantage.

"We expected to go to the playoffs at the beginning of the
season, the middle of the season and even today,'' Saints receiver
Donte' Stallworth said. "The best team doesn't always win. We
found that out a couple of times this season.''

After going 5-0 against first-place teams, the Saints were 0-3
against last-place teams in the final three games. New Orleans
opened 6-1, only to lose six of its last nine.

"You've got to win the ones you get chances to win,'' Saints
safety Sammy Knight said. "We didn't do that all year.''

Carolina (7-9), in last place in the NFC South, snapped a
13-game losing streak in its division. The Panthers were 1-5 this
season in the new division after going 0-8 last season in the NFC
West.

Carolina shook off a 1-15 season last year to finish with four
victories in its last five games.

"That's character,'' Carolina receiver Mushin Muhummad said.
"I've been talking about that the whole season. This team has more
character and more togetherness and has gelled so tightly that its
an almost eery feeling.''

Fans started booing quarterback Aaron Brooks and the Saints'
offense early. By the second half, the chants of "We want Jake!''
-- calling for backup quarterback Jake Delhomme -- boomed though the
Superdome.

"When you play at home, most crowds try to back you and help
you win,'' Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "That's what home-field
advantage is all about.''

The Panthers, with the No. 4 defense overall, held the Saints to
244 yards, 125 yards of them rushing. Deuce McAllister gained 117
yards on 28 carries, the first back to have a 100-yard game against
Carolina this season.

Brooks, 12-of-31 for 145 yards, was sacked three times and
intercepted twice. The Saints converted just 4 of 17 third downs.

"He's been making mistakes,'' Cousin said. "When you're at
home and the crowd boos, that speaks volumes.''

Carolina's offense wasn't much better.

Rodney Peete completed 19 of 30 passes for 203 yards and a
touchdown. He was intercepted twice and sacked twice. The Panthers
converted 3 of 14 third downs. They gained 273 total yards and
rushed for 85, with Nick Goings gaining 70 yards on 18 carries.

Tempers flared before the game between some New Orleans and
Carolina players. The Panthers' secondary was upset by remarks that
Saints receiver Joe Horn made after the first game this season,
when he said he saw fear in the eyes of the Panthers.

"I took it serious,'' Carolina safety Deon Grant said. "It got
me excited. It made me want to play. Made me want to just go out
and hunt all day.''

New Orleans recovered a fumble by Goings on Carolina's 12 in the
first quarter. But after a sack of Brooks, a 5-yard run by
McAllister and an incomplete pass, the Saints settled for a 30-yard
field goal by John Carney to take a 3-0 lead.

New Orleans drove to Carolina's 27 in the second quarter, only
to have Jake Reed fumble and Cousin recover. On the next drive by
New Orleans, Cousin picked off a pass on the Panthers 22.

The Panthers scored on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Peete to
Brad Hoover with 51 seconds left in the first half and took a 7-3
lead into the break.

New Orleans' first drive of the second half went to Carolina's
13 before an 8-yard sack of Brooks pushed the Saints back to the
20. Carney kicked his second field goal, a 38-yarder, to cut the
Panthers' lead to 7-6.

Carolina came back quickly, capping its next drive with a
50-yard field goal by Shayne Graham to go up 10-6 with 2:43 left in
the third quarter.

Game notes
New Orleans held an opponent under 20 points for the first
time this season. ... Before his second quarter interception,
Brooks had thrown 138 straight passes without being picked off. ...
The Saints have lost their final game seven straight seasons. ...
Carney tied a franchise record with his 31st field goal of the
season. ... Injuries_ Saints: CB Dale Carter, broken forearm, LS
Kevin Houser, sprained shoulder.