CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The road has been cruel and unmerciful to the New Orleans Saints all season.
This one was the hardest for the Saints (10-5) to take because they were actually proud of their effort. This wasn't like those games in which they flat-lined at St. Louis or New York or Seattle. This time, they grinded and gritted and gutted out a performance that was almost good enough to win for 59 minutes.
The offense wasn't pretty, but it was resilient, churning out a 97-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter that felt like the one that would finally end this epidemic of ugly road losses.
And then it took all of 32 seconds for Carolina's Cam Newton to march his team down the field in the final minute for a game-winning and gut-wrenching touchdown.
Now, as further punishment for their 3-5 record on the road this season, the Saints almost certainly will have to hit the road as a wild-card team in the playoffs -- although they still could finish anywhere from the No. 2 seed to out of the playoffs entirely.
"It's the most disappointed this locker room has been all season. It's wildly disappointing," said Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief, who in the same breath said it had been a long time since he was so proud to be a part of a team because of the way the Saints battled.
"That's a tough way to lose," Strief added. "And the fact of the matter is for all the energy, for all the excitement, for all the effort, at the end of the day, it counts as if you didn't have any of it."
Those contradictory emotions -- devastated by losing, encouraged by the effort -- were prevalent inside the Saints' postgame locker room. In fact, coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees were surprisingly positive after the defeat.
"We didn't get the win, but we played like we're going to get plenty of them," Payton said -- changing his tune dramatically from one week earlier when the Saints came out lifeless at St. Louis. "We gave up the big drive at the end. But it's disappointing, it's not discouraging. We'll be just fine [if we keep playing with that effort]."
That positive attitude speaks to just how bad the Saints' road epidemic has become this season.
Or maybe it just speaks to the fact that the Saints know they'll need something positive to cling to when they hit the road next -- which likely will be two weeks from now in a cold-weather city like Philadelphia or Chicago. (The Saints can still win the No. 2 seed if they beat Tampa Bay at home and Carolina loses at Atlanta. Or the Saints could miss the playoffs if they lose to Tampa, San Francisco wins Monday night and Arizona beats San Francisco next week).
"Of course it is painful, but we are trying to draw from the positives," Brees said. "We put together a game plan that I really felt like we executed for the most part really well, both offensively and defensively. And, you know, it didn't result in a lot of points, it didn't result in a lot of flair. But the fact of the matter is it gave us a chance to win in the end.
"[There are] just a couple little things here and there that I think we recognize that we can still improve upon. But it's all out there in front of us."
I do agree with the sentiment that the Saints showed a lot of resiliency Sunday.
I'm not sure I agree, though, that it was just a couple of "little" things that prevented them from winning.
It's still remarkable how vastly different this offense plays on the road. Brees was sacked six times Sunday -- tied for the most since he joined the Saints in 2006 -- as rookie left tackle Terron Armstead struggled in his starting debut with the Saints.
Brees threw interceptions in the second and third quarters before finally putting that touchdown drive together in the fourth quarter -- which required a 46-yard catch-and-run by tight end Jimmy Graham to get the drive going.
But the Saints followed up that touchdown drive with two three-and-outs late in the fourth quarter, once when they tried to pass, once when they settled for clock-eating run plays.
Meanwhile, the Saints' defense was downright dominant for almost the entire game Sunday, except for some dramatic breakdowns at the end of each half.
They allowed a 43-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams late in the second quarter. And they allowed Newton to complete a 37-yard pass to Ted Ginn to start that final drive and a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon to end it.
The Saints blitzed six men on the final play, but safety Malcolm Jenkins was barely knocked off balance by fullback Mike Tolbert's fingertips. And Hixon came back to make a diving catch in front of cornerback Corey White.
Emotionally, Saints defensive players admitted it was hard to take.
"To play the way we did the entire game and shut 'em down and really feel like we dominated most of the game -- then when the team needed us most, not to come off the field and come away with a victory, that's the most disappointing and frustrating and leaves you sick to your stomach," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said.
Just like the offense, though, the Saints' defenders didn't have many regrets about their plan or their effort. They held Carolina to 222 yards, sacked Newton four times and didn't allow the Panthers to convert a third down in nine chances.
"There's really not much you can look at and get mad at," Jenkins said. "We played it just the way we knew we had to. Played hard. Handled the conditions. Battled on defense. Got drives on offense when we needed. Just the last minute of the game kind of lost it there.
"We've just got to take this loss and go back to work because we've still got all our dreams and plans in front of us. It just might be a different road than we expected."