New Orleans Saints’ rally, Drew Brees’ bid for Dan Marino’s record come up short in 33-31 loss to Carolina Panthers

Posted by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune December 28, 2008 10:31PM

Drew Brees insisted that he didn’t know how close he had come to the NFL’s single-season passing record until after the Saints’ 33-31 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Superdome.

When someone informed the Saints quarterback that he missed tying the mark by just 15 yards, he realized that his final pass attempt would have put him over the top — a desperate 20-yard throw toward receiver Lance Moore that was supposed to turn into a series of laterals with no time on the clock.

The pass fell short when Moore didn’t turn around as quickly as Brees expected, leaving Brees short of Dan Marino’s 24-year-old record of 5,084 yards.

And maybe, Brees said later, that was appropriate.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the way the record deserves to be broken,” said Brees, who finished with 386 yards Sunday and 5,069 yards for the season, the second-highest total in league history, while the Saints finished with a disappointing 8-8 record.

“I sit back and look at it, that record’s stood for a long time. One of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game owns it. And it’s a huge record,” Brees said. “And so maybe the fact that we were 8-8 meant that it wasn’t meant to be for us to get it.”

For a short while Sunday, it seemed that perhaps the exact opposite might be true.

Brees made the crowd erupt late in the second half while rallying the Saints from a 30-10 deficit to take an improbable 31-30 lead with 3:11 remaining.

He threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a span of 15 minutes to come within striking distance of the record and the victory, both of which had seemed impossible for much of the day.

But like Brees said, it clearly wasn’t meant to be. The Panthers rallied back for a clinching 42-yard field goal by John Kasay with one second remaining, thanks largely to a 39-yard pass from quarterback Jake Delhomme to receiver Steve Smith.

Delhomme’s pass seemed almost like a Hail Mary. He heaved the ball after scrambling around in the pocket on first-and-10 from the Panthers’ 18-yard line, allowing it to hang in the air above Smith, cornerback Jason David and safety Roman Harper.

Smith, the Pro Bowl receiver who has made a career out of killing the Saints, came down with it.

David and Harper commended Smith’s skills but said they believed they were in position to make a play. David said he went for the interception and would do it the same way again if given the chance.

“We’ve had too many games like that this year. You have to make the plays to win the game in situations like that. Wins are too hard to come by in this league,” said Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, who broke free for a huge sack to force a punt on Carolina’s previous drive. “Steve Smith is a great player, and he made a great play. That’s the one play you have to make somewhere along the way.”

The Saints were granted one more chance when Kasay’s kickoff scooted out of bounds with one second remaining. They considered a Hail Mary throw for the end zone, but especially after they were pushed back 5 yards by a delay-of-game penalty, Brees realized he couldn’t throw the ball 70-plus yards. So they devised an impromptu play, with Brees telling his receivers to turn and look for the ball after about 20 yards.

“He told us to look for it early,” said Moore, who caught the final two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. “Obviously, we didn’t look early enough.”

Coach Sean Payton and several players suggested that Sunday’s loss was a microcosm of the season:

The Saints shot themselves in the foot with early mistakes, including an interception by Brees and a fumbled kickoff return by Skyler Green that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter, and they allowed the Panthers to run for 174 yards in the first half.

They came back with their offense firing on all cylinders and their defense stepping up big on three consecutive drives.

They found a way to lose in the end.

“This has been somewhat the story of the season, and that’s not a good thing,” said Payton, who lamented the early miscues and the late ones. “Like the Chicago Bears game (which ended in part because of a deep pass interference penalty in overtime), here’s a lead with three minutes left and we need to make a play above our head on the football. That’s everyone. That’s not one specific person. We need to hurry the passer. We need to be able to get our hands on the football. Those are the things that we weren’t able to do and the result ends up in a loss.”

The Saints lost six games in the final minutes this season — at Washington in Week 2, at Denver in Week 3, vs. Minnesota in Week 5, at Tampa Bay in Week 13, at Chicago in Week 15 and vs. Carolina in Week 17. Those six losses came by a total of 18 points.

Payton reminded his team of that exact theme Saturday night, insisting they need to place an emphasis on finishing strong.

“This is another one you lump into (that group),” Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. “You’re proud of the fight. But again, to come up short, it’s tough.”

“This definitely isn’t an average football team,” Moore said. “But we’ve had too many games get away from us in the last seconds.”

Heading into Sunday’s game, the Saints believed that a victory over Carolina could help put a positive spin on this season and provide some momentum heading into next year.

After all, they insisted, they were just a few plays away from being a 10- or 11-win team that could have been right in the thick of the playoff race.

However, the way things transpired in the season finale didn’t provide clarity either way.

Brees said “it’s not every day that you can come back from three touchdowns to take the lead in the fourth quarter against the team who is going to be the No. 2 seed in our conference, so I think that’s saying a lot. We can draw a lot of positives from that.”

But once again, New Orleans proved to be a team that was so close this year … yet so far away.

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