The Panthers had a downcast locker room after the game for the first time in a couple of months. Offensive tackle Jordan Gross probably provided the best perspective on the loss, saying: "It was just tough. But I feel good that we can learn from this and get a little bit revitalized. You win eight in a row and everything is peaches and cream every Monday... When you lose, you get reminded of all your little faults. It might not be bad for us."
Gross reminded everyone that the Panthers' 9-4 record is "great. We're right in the mix of the playoff picture. The worst thing we could do is hang our heads and mope around and let one loss turn into two.... We might have a better sense of urgency now than had we won. I'd rather get my butt kicked this week than three weeks from now or four weeks from now."
Now, onto the list of the five things that went most wrong (as well as some analysis of the Panthers' playoff chances):
1) The coverage. This was the night that the secondary -- and the linebackers in coverage -- really got exposed. Drew Brees had a classic Drew Brees day -- 30 of 42, 313 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He was accurate as usual, but often his receivers were open by 3-4 yards. Coach Ron Rivera said afterward that the Panthers weren't physical enough with the Saints' receivers, which linebacker Luke Kuechly agreed with. Kuechly gave up one TD pass to Jimmy Graham where he said "I needed to get my hands on him."
2) The offensive line. Cam Newton had a bad day, but that was partly because he was harried so often. Newton was sacked five times and took big losses on most of them -- a total of 49 yards. He scrambled out of trouble many more times. The offensive line simply looked overmatched against the Saints' pass rush, and DeAngelo Williams never went longer than nine yards on his 13 carries. And, to make matters worse, the oft-injured Jonathan Stewart may have a serious knee injury.
3) Newton himself. He threw 34 passes, and not a single completion went for more than 17 yards. "I was trying to take what the defense gave me," said Newton, who targeted Greg Olsen 12 times. Olsen caught eight of them, but for only 40 yards.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton praised his team for "minimizing the chunk plays," and the Saints certainly did that. It wasn't all Newton's fault. His receivers didn't get enough separation, Rivera said. Brandon LaFell in particular had a bad day, with only two receptions for 22 yards and one drop.
4) The pass rush. Brees was only sacked twice even with all those attempts. Now he gets the ball out really quick, but c'mon. The Panther simply didn't get there enough with their base four-man rush, and Brees picked them apart in the 21-point second quarter that decided the game. The Saints were great in the red zone behind Brees, while Carolina was bad, kicking field goals instead of scoring TDs.
5) Coaching. The players didn't blame the game plan, but it certainly didn't work. The Panthers only netted 111 yards passing. Mike Tolbert disappeared. The Saints found every hole in the Panther defense. The offensive line couldn't hold up. The Panthers tried to start blitzing more after halftime, which disrupted Brees a little, but he looked like a much different quarterback than the one who was so messed up by Seattle on Monday night. They get another chance Dec.22, at home.
"It's a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go," a somber Newton said. "The best thing about this tonight is we have opportunity to face this same team in two weeks."
OK, as for the playoffs: Carolina would be the No.5 NFC team, going on the road to play Detroit, if the playoffs began today (here are the NFL standings). The Panthers must be careful, though. They now share the same record as San Francisco -- 9-4 -- but the Panthers hold that tiebreaker. However, if Carolina loses once more -- say, to the Jets at home on Sunday -- then there's a possibility Arizona (8-5) could catch Carolina. And Arizona holds the tiebreaker against Carolina. So the Panthers are no sure thing to make the playoffs as of now -- 11 wins would almost certainly get them there, which would require a 2-1 finish. Anything less than that would be very iffy. So the Panthers can't afford a holiday hangover.