- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers, which moved them to 10-5 on the season and put the Panthers in the driver's seat to win the NFC South.
What it means: A disastrous loss for the Saints. Losing would have been gut-wrenching in any fashion -- but especially the way they did it, blowing a 13-10 lead in the final minute. The Saints' defense played great for almost the entire game before completely breaking down on a five-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that lasted just 32 seconds. The final dagger was a 14-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Domenik Hixon to burst a failed blitz.
Once again, the Saints' offense struggled mightily on the road (though it did nearly pull it out with a terrific 97-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter). Now the Saints will almost certainly have to hit the road for the playoffs as a wild-card team.
Carolina (11-4) can clinch the NFC South title and No. 2 seed with a victory next week at Atlanta -- or with a Saints loss at home to Tampa Bay. The Saints still need to win or have the Arizona Cardinals lose one of their final two games to officially clinch a playoff spot.
Under pressure: Once again, the Saints' offense proved to be a completely different unit on the road. After scoring 31 points and throwing four touchdown passes against these same Panthers in New Orleans two weeks ago, they nearly got shut out of the end zone Sunday. Quarterback Drew Brees was sacked six times, tied for his most in a Saints uniform. He also threw two interceptions.
Stock watch: Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead didn't fare much better than his predecessor, Charles Brown. Armstead could be credited for allowing four of the sacks -- at least two of which he was badly beaten by Greg Hardy. He settled in a bit during the second half, but it was clearly a problem for the Saints all day. Most of the sacks were a result of good downfield coverage by the Panthers. Even when Brees had time to throw, he struggled to find open receivers and settled for underneath throws.
Up next: The Saints likely won't bench their starters at home against Tampa Bay -- even if they do clinch a playoff spot later Sunday. The Saints need to hold out hope that the Panthers might suffer an emotional letdown and lose at Atlanta. Stranger things have happened.