NEW ORLEANS — After hugging Saints counterpart Wil Lutz, Carolina rookie kicker Joey Slye trudged toward the locker room, holding his helmet in one hand while staring at the turf.
Slye felt his failures cost the Panthers a game they desperately wanted to win.
Slye was wide right on a 28-yard, would-be tiebreaking field goal with 1:56 left, depriving Carolina of its first lead and completing a rough day in which he also botched two extra points.
He then watched Lutz’s 33-yard game-winner as time ran out, handing the Panthers (5-6) a crushing 34-31 defeat that dropped them four games behind the Saints in the NFC South and three games behind Minnesota for the final wild card.
“I wanted to be a part of a great win here,” Slye said. “We’re a 5-5 team trying to make the playoffs. We needed this win.”
It is not hard to do the math. Slye’s errant extra points cost the Panthers two points, and they also failed on a 2-point conversion trying to make up for his first miss. His missed field goal took away three more.
Slye said he was not distracted by Saints defender Marcus Davenport, who leaped over the line in an attempt to block the kick.
The officials threw a flag on the same play but picked it up, ruling snapper J.J. Jansen had not been held by the Saints’ David Onyemata, as the official who tossed the flag initially suspected.
“I felt like I was pulled down by the back of my helmet,” Jansen said. “They said I was pushed down (which is legal). It’s a judgment call by the officials.”
Had Slye converted the field goal, the Panthers would have gone ahead 34-31 after they trailed 14-0 early and 31-18 in the second half.
Christian McCaffrey cut the deficit to 31-24 on a 4-yard touchdown run with 1:28 left in the third quarter before Slye’s second missed extra point. Kyle Allen’s 2-yard, fourth-down scoring pass to D.J. Moore helped them tie the score at 31 with 9:23 left.
When safety Eric Reid stuffed Alvin Kamara for a fourth-down loss on the next possession, Carolina drove 33 yards to the Saints 10, setting up Slye for a chip shot from the middle of the field.
He had been 7 of 7 from inside 40 yards.
“If you push it right, it means your plant foot is a little deep,” he said. “Every single kick has to be on point.”
Teammates deflected blame from their rookie kicker.
Tight end Greg Olsen pointed to Carolina’s inability to score a touchdown on that last series. The Panthers had a first-and-goal at the 3 after a replay review led officials to call pass interference on the Saints, but they lost 7 yards in three plays.
“That was tough,” Olsen said. “We made too many critical mistakes to win on the road. Having a chance to overcome them was a miracle in itself.”
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy lamented the Saints’ two first-quarter touchdowns that put the Panthers in a hole and the final possession when Drew Brees moved the Saints 65 yards with one timeout, setting up Lutz’s winning kick.
“We know we’re better than what we’re showing,” McCoy said. “It’s time to stop talking. It’s time to start doing. We actually should have won this game, but we put ourselves in too many bad spots.”
They appeared to be in a great spot before Slye’s last kick.
Slye, who was not drafted, won his job by making seven of eight field goals in the preseason, including three from 50 yards or longer. The Panthers placed longtime kicker Graham Gano on injured reserve at the end of August with a lingering knee injury that sidelined him for the last four games of 2018.
Slye was named NFC special teams player of the week in Week 4 after making all three of his field goals, including a 55-yarder, against Houston.
He hit field goals of 41 and 52 yards against the Saints, but the rest of the day was a nightmare.
Still, it didn’t sound like the Panthers had lost faith in him.
“He is a young kicker,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He is going to make his mistakes, but if you give him time and stick with him, eventually he will become a good kicker."
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, receiver Michael Thomas and kicker Wil Lutz celebrated a decisive string of late-game successes that put New Orleans on the cusp of a third straight NFC South crown.
The Carolina Panthers could only lament the first-and-goal they squandered just moments earlier in a third straight loss that has placed their playoff prospects in jeopardy.
Lutz kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired, and New Orleans beat Carolina 34-31 on Sunday to take a four-game lead in the NFC South with five games left.
“It’s exciting. It’s butterflies. But also, it’s confidence,” said Brees, who led the Saints from their own 14-yard line with 1:51 left to the Carolina 15 with 3 seconds remaining. “It’s unity. You feel like everybody knows the challenge ahead. Everybody knows what we need to do in order to accomplish whatever it is we need to accomplish to go win the game. Everybody just kind of locks in and goes.”
Lutz’s second game-winning kick this season capped a contest filled with late momentum shifts and critical errors - none bigger than Carolina kicker Joey Slye’s missed field goal from 28 yards with 2 minutes left.
Carolina trailed from early in the first quarter until 9:23 remained in the fourth quarter, when D.J. Moore reached up with his right hand to corral a fourth-and-goal pass in the back of the end zone to tie it at 31.
Soon after, Panthers safety Eric Reid stuffed Alvin Kamara on fourth-and-1 from the New Orleans 45. That set up a dramatic sequence in which Carolina coach Ron Rivera successfully challenged officials’ decision not to call pass interference on a third-down incomplete pass, giving Carolina a first down on the 3 with 2:21 left.
Christian McCaffrey’s run was stuffed, Kyle Allen threw incomplete on second down and Allen was sacked on third down by Marcus Davenport, setting the stage for the end of a difficult day for Slye, who’d also missed two extra-point kicks.
“I feel terrible,” Slye said. “We needed this win.”
Brees finished 30 of 39 for 311 yards and three touchdowns, but also was intercepted by Tre Boston, a play that helped Carolina come back in the fourth quarter. Michael Thomas had 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown for New Orleans (9-2), including receptions of 14 and 24 yards on the game-winning drive.
“We work that situation week in and week out and it always comes up to benefit us,” Thomas said of the Saints’ hurry-up offense. “I’m just grateful for not cheating the preparation.”
Allen passed for 256 yards and three TDs for Carolina (5-6), which saw its playoff hopes pushed to the brink.
“It is incredibly frustrating,” Allen said. “Some weeks it’s been offense, some weeks it’s been defense. We’ve just got to put it together and play a complete game.”
McCaffrey had 133 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage on a balance of runs and receptions. Moore had six catches for 126 yards and two TDs, the first a 51-yarder.
Saints tight end Jared Cook had six catches for 99 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown, and running back Latavius Murray scored the game’s first TD on a 26-yard run.
PENALTIES AND REVIEWS
New Orleans’ second touchdown, a 13-yard pass to Tre’Quan Smith, was set up by a muffed punt that was initially ruled to have been first touched by New Orleans. Saints coach Sean Payton challenged, and replay showed the ball hit Carolina’s Rashaan Gaulden first, giving New Orleans the ball on the Panthers 27, where J.T. Gray had recovered it.
That was Payton’s second challenge of the first 10 minutes after he’d lost a challenge of an offensive pass interference call against Cook.
Payton was among those lobbying for a 2019 rule change to allow review of pass interference after a missed call cost the Saints in last season’s NFC title game.
“I don't know that it's exactly what we discussed where we are today with it. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not,” Payton said. “But we've got to be able to adjust.”
Carolina’s second TD capped a 17-play drive that appeared to have stalled on Davis’ third-down sack, but defensive end Cameron Jordan was called for unnecessary roughness.
Jordan said he had not heard a whistle and was trying to punch the ball loose from Allen.
Carolina’s game-tying TD in the fourth quarter came shortly after a pass interference call against safety Marcus Williams on a long pass in the back of the end zone.
Carolina got no extra points after its first three TDs. In addition to Slye’s two misses, the Panthers attempted to pass for a 2-point conversion after their second TD, but it was broken up.
Panthers: Defensive tackle Dontari Poe appeared to hurt his left leg in the first half. Guard Greg Van Roten also had an apparent left leg injury in the first half. Reid rolled his left ankle in the third quarter but returned to the game.
Saints: Left tackle Terron Armstead left in the first half with an apparent leg injury. The Saints already were without left guard Andrus Peat, who normally slides over to tackle when Armstead is out, so Patrick Omameh subbed in at tackle next to guard Nick Easton, who was filling in at left guard.
Panthers: Host Washington on Sunday as they try to snap a three-game skid.
Saints: Visit Atlanta on Thursday night with a chance to lock up the NFC South.
© 2020 Associated Press