The New Orleans Saints won a ball game Sunday but the result won't win them many believers.
There continue to be nagging breakdowns for the Saints. Last week, there was a missed field goal and a deflating loss to Atlanta in overtime. Yesterday, they sputtered like a 15-year-old Ford weather-beater on a cold winter morning.
Sure, they beat the Carolina Panthers 16-14. But it was a disconcerting victory.
Carolina, with a rookie quarterback in Jimmy Clausen behind a pop-gun offence, was in position to kick a potential winning field goal until DeAngelo Williams was tossed for a loss in the backfield on an ill-advised cut-back in the last minute.
The Panthers had averaged less than 11 points in their first three games. They scored just 32 points in three losses but, while they might not have looked like world-beaters, they came within four minutes of the season's biggest upset.
John Carney pulled Saints fans back in off the ledges with a 25-yard field goal on New Orleans' final drive.
The Saints continued their struggles to convert third downs. The short-yardage game has been wonky and turnovers, injuries, missed assignments and Lady Luck have all conspired to make this a difficult start for the Super Bowl champions.
Jeremy Shockey has become a game-breaker, but not for the Saints. He dropped two passes yesterday in the first half and in the third quarter wasn't even on the field for a key third-down attempt.
First-half fumbles by Chris Ivory and Lance Moore cost them probable TDs, a 14-point shift. Ivory's came on the 20-yard-line and Moore dropped a ball near the one. Both were recovered by James Anderson.
They can't even get lucky. In the second half, a deflected pass fell between four Saints and into the hands of Panthers' Jeff King. One play later, Williams, who developed his own goat horns later, was rambling 39 yards for a TD and a 14-10 Carolina lead.
The Panthers have no offence and, for a team that considers itself championship material, this should have been like beating up on the scout team. Instead, Saints' Malcolm Jenkins blew coverage, allowing Clausen to throw his first NFL touchdown pass to Jonathan Stewart.
The Panthers didn't score a touchdown in pre-season, but the Saints were starting Ivory and Ladell Betts at running back with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush injured. Brees is wearing a brace on his knee, even though the Saints say it's not a problem. But let's be honest: Quarterbacks don't wear those things as fashion accessories.
Despite that, the Saints dominated time of possession. The running game worked. The pass game wasn't bad. They just couldn't score, leaving that to Carney, who unlike the displaced Garrett Hartley, didn't miss.
But rarely has a victory looked so hollow. For the Saints, it's been that kind of season.