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Reason to cheer: Saints beat Panthers in final seconds

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Football is no longer a simple game for
the New Orleans Saints. They'll play this season for the victims of
Hurricane Katrina, a burden they'll carry every time they step on
the field.

The Saints won Sunday for their deluged city and the displaced
victims of the Gulf Coast region, getting two touchdowns from Deuce
McAllister and a 47-yard field goal from John Carney with 3 seconds
left in a 23-20 season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers.

"In the back of our minds, we know we have to give them one
tiny bit of hope," said New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks. "We
have complete faith in what we are doing because every time we go
out there, it is our job to give them hope that every day will be a
better day."

The Saints have visited shelters in Louisiana, Mississippi and
Texas, spending time with fans who had lost everything. Each time
they heard the same request: Win a game for us.

If they needed another reminder, they got it during a Saturday
night team meeting when coach Jim Haslett read an emotional letter
from New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

"He talked about the things he had seen, babies dying,"
receiver Joe Horn said. "You would only see it in a horror story.
People were crying on his shoulder, saying they don't know where
their son is, where the daughter is.

"I can't speak enough about how our heart goes out to them. The
letter had an impact. We respect and acknowledge what everyone has
gone through."

They proved it by scoring an important victory over an NFC South
rival and an emotional win for their fans. They rushed the field to
celebrate Carney's game-winning kick, their first joy since Katrina
tore through New Orleans on Aug. 29.

And they punctuated the victory by giving out two game balls --
one to Nagin, the second to the victims of Katrina.

"It's been emotional for us, but we're not in the same
situation as the people in those shelters," said offensive lineman
Wayne Gandy. "It was a good break for us to just be able to go out
and play football, but it's not all about us anymore."

New Orleans opened the game with a businesslike first drive,
running McAllister straight at Carolina's vaunted line. The
Mississippi native has always been successful against the Panthers,
and this time was no different. He touched the ball nine times on
the drive, capping it with a four-yard touchdown run.

McAllister added another score, a two-yard TD in the second
quarter, to give the Saints a 14-7 lead they took into halftime.

From there, nothing came easy for the Saints, who missed chance
after chance to put the Panthers away.

Carolina was sloppy in this one -- Jake Delhomme threw two
interceptions and the Panthers fumbled twice. But New Orleans was
never able to capitalize: The Saints fumbled away both of
Delhomme's interceptions during the returns.

It gave the Panthers just enough room to make a run at the win,
and they did it with big games from Steve Smith and Stephen Davis,
two of their stars who missed most of last season with injury.

Davis ran for 81 yards and a touchdown, and Smith had eight
catches for 138 yards and a score, but it wasn't enough.

Smith just missed scoring at least four other times, being ruled
out of bounds on three catches in the end zone. And his catch in
the end zone at the end of the first half was ruled incomplete
because he stepped out of bounds before he caught it.

"I just think that's some fine 20/20 vision by the referees,"
a sarcastic Smith said. "That's really it."

Still, Carolina was able to tie the game at 20 on John Kasay's
46-yard field goal with 1:04 to play.

The Saints wouldn't settle for overtime, though.

Brooks threw passes of 11 and 25 yards to Horn to move the
Saints into field goal range. Carney then came onto the field to
win a game that carried more meaning for New Orleans and the entire
Gulf Coast region.

It's still not clear where the Saints will play the bulk of
their games this season. Their home opener is next week against the
New York Giants, but will be played in the Meadowlands.

So for the time being, there will be few familiar faces in the
stands at any Saints game. They had at least 350 fans against
Carolina, courtesy of Panthers players who donated their tickets to
evacuees staying at the Charlotte Coliseum.

The Panthers also collected $176,000 in donations during the
game for the relief effort.

"We respect the Carolina fans," Horn said. "I told Julius
Peppers, 'Thank you.' That's the first thing I said to him. I
didn't say 'We beat your butt.' I said 'Thank you very much for
your support, I appreciate it.' Because that's what's important."

Game notes
Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins left the game
with a sprained right knee. ... New Orleans tight end Ernie Conwell
had six catches for 71 yards, then left the game with a concussion
and displaced jaw after a hard tackle by Marlon McCree and Mike
Minter. ... McAllister finished with 64 yards on 26 carries. ...
Delhomme was 19-of-31 for 212 yards. He had a 33-yard TD pass to
Smith. ... New Orleans rookie Jammal Brown did an outstanding job
on Carolina end Julius Peppers, limiting him to six tackles and no
sacks.