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Panthers pick off Saints, back in first

BATON ROUGE, La. (Dec. 18, 2005) -- A quarterback that got away ruined the Saints' one last chance to win a game in front of Louisiana's disaster-weary fans.

Former New Orleans backup Jake Delhomme led Carolina back into first place in the NFC South, throwing for a touchdown and running for another as the Panthers defeated New Orleans 27-10.

"Jake's been excellent for us," Carolina coach John Fox said. "He's got us to where we're now 10-4. Jake's had a whole lot to do with that."

Delhomme's fourth victory against his former team came in the same week the Saints benched quarterback Aaron Brooks after 82 straight starts. His replacement, seldom-used Todd Bouman, threw four interceptions and lost a fumble.

Throwing only as much as he needed to, Delhomme was 13 of 22 for 176 yards. With the Panthers never trailing, he relied on a solid running game to control the clock. Carolina rushed for 161 yards, with DeShaun Foster running for a team-leading 75 yards.

With Tampa Bay losing a day earlier at New England, the Panthers regained the division lead by one game with the help of receiver Steve Smith, who ran for a 20-yard score on an end-around in the first quarter and caught Delhomme's 15-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.

The Saints (3-11), who'll play their final home game in San Antonio, finished 0-4 in LSU's Tiger Stadium. Even before Hurricane Katrina, the Saints lost both preseason games in New Orleans.

Receiver Joe Horn, who has been among the Saints' best players this season but had only one catch against the Panthers, said he never could have predicted such a poor showing, even with the team being displaced to San Antonio because of the hurricane.

"No matter what you go through in life there are problems and you have to overcome them and do your job," Horn said. "Yes, there were a lot of distractions, but we are grown men and we get paid major dollars to win football games."

There remains some uncertainty over whether the Saints will ever play in Louisiana again, with owner Tom Benson having shown an inclination -- without saying so directly -- to remain in San Antonio. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue continues to insist the Saints are Louisiana's team.

"I don't know if it's the last game but I just wish we had performed better in case it is," Saints coach Jim Haslett said.

Delhomme, an affable Cajun who starred at Louisiana-Lafayette and left the Saints as a free agent following the 2002 season, was unusually popular for a backup when he played for New Orleans. With Baton Rouge only an hour's drive east of his hometown of Breaux Bridge, Delhomme had a sizable cheering section of fans wearing his No. 17 in Carolina blue.

He needed only a few plays to bring them to their feet, converting a third down by dropping a 40-yard pass into Drew Carter 's outstretched arms along the sideline. Smith scored his first career rushing touchdown two plays later, launching himself over the goal line as he was hit hard along the sideline.

"I knew I was going to have a great number of people and that's nice that they can come and watch us play," Delhomme said. "Certainly, you're honored when you have a lot of fans in the stands and I'm just happy they can drive back home with a smile."

Across the field sat Brooks, enduring the worst season of his career, having thrown more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (13). So Haslett decided to give Bouman, now in his ninth season, the fourth start of his career.

The experiment began well, with Bouman marching New Orleans 80 yards on 11 plays and hitting Donte' Stallworth for a 23-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7. Bouman crouched and pumped his fist, enjoying a short-lived taste of success.

He threw three interceptions in the second quarter, one inside the Carolina 5-yard line. Two of the turnovers led to 10 Panthers points: John Kasay's 32-yard field goal and Delhomme's 2-yard sneak with 41 seconds left in the half, giving Carolina a 17-7 lead at halftime.

Bouman's final interception came in the fourth quarter with the Saints on the Carolina 1. His attempted fade to Stallworth was short and picked off by Ken Lucas.

He finished 17 for 34 for 193 yards.

Haslett, rumored to be seeking either a long-term contract or to be let go, avoided discussing the matter after the game.

"I want to coach this team the next two weeks the best I can," he said.

Notes: John Carney's 29-yard field goal in the fourth quarter gave him 384 for his career, third all time in the NFL. He passed Nick Lowery, who has 383. ... Delhomme now has 10,103 yards passing in his career, joining Steve Beuerlein (12,690) as the only quarterbacks in Panthers history with 10,000 passing yards. ... Carolina has held nine straight opponents to fewer than 300 yards.

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