CHARLOTTE, N.C. - 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."
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.
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