Playoff scenarios: There are still a ton of possibilities for the Saints (10-5). They could wind up as the NFC's No. 2 seed (with a win and a Carolina loss), No. 5, No. 6 or out of the playoffs entirely (with a loss, a San Francisco win Monday night and an Arizona win over San Francisco next week).
Trying to figure out where the Saints will play if they wind up as a wild-card is even more complicated. Philadelphia (9-6), Dallas (8-7), Chicago (8-7) and Green Bay (7-7-1) are all still in play. Obviously things would have been much simpler for the Saints if they had beaten Carolina.
Offense a concern: The Saints' defense blew it in the final minute Sunday, but that's not why they lost. The most disconcerting performance Sunday was yet another offensive dud. It's stunning how different the Saints' offense is on the road.
I want to give Carolina's defense a ton of deserved credit. The Panthers' coverage was stifling, and linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are awesome. But I just saw the Saints' offense torch this same unit for 31 points two weeks ago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It's hard to explain.
I give the Saints credit for showing resilience with a 97-yard TD drive in the fourth quarter. But the Saints allowed six sacks, and Brees threw two interceptions on a rough day -- both when it was raining and when it wasn't. They seemed to adapt as the game went along, running the ball with Mark Ingram more and protecting Brees better after rookie left tackle Terron Armstead struggled early. But it was too little, too late.
Devastating finish: The defense was on the field for only 21:12, and the Saints were dominant for about 20 of those minutes. But they broke down late in the first half on DeAngelo Williams' 43-yard touchdown run. And they collapsed during Carolina's game-winning touchdown drive, which lasted 32 seconds.
It was the most stunning development in the game. Carolina didn't convert a single third down all day, and there was no indication that quarterback Cam Newton was capable of completing a 37-yard strike to receiver Ted Ginn, a 14-yard strike to tight end Greg Olsen and a blitz-busting 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Domenik Hixon.
Saints coach Sean Payton was quick to defend the defensive play calls late in the game, saying they had played the same way on the previous series when Carolina went three-and-out. But this time the pass rush didn't quite get to Newton, and the coverage by safety Roman Harper and cornerback Corey White offered a little too much cushion.
Play calling: I feel like I have to address this, based on the criticism I saw on Twitter after the game. But I'm not sure how it's possible to second-guess Payton's play-calling on the final two drives (both three-and-outs): run-pass-pass; Run-run-run. The Saints were aggressive the first time but didn't convert. Then they were conservative on the second drive (wise considering the way Carolina's offense was struggling.) Ineffective, yes. But the overall strategy wasn't the problem.
Payton also tried some “exotics” -- successfully converting a surprise onside kick and failing on a fake field goal. Again, it's hard to criticize one but not the other. However, it was weird the way the Saints shifted into their passing look on the fake field goal, giving Carolina plenty of time to adjust defensively.