The New Orleans Saints (search) took their minds off two weeks of death and despair, focused on football and won a game Sunday for the victims of Hurricane Katrina (search). Deuce McAllister ran for two touchdowns and John Carney kicked a 47-yard field goal with 3 seconds left to lift the Saints to an emotional 23-20 season-opening win over the Carolina Panthers.
The Saints rushed out on the field to celebrate the kick, their first joy since Katrina tore through New Orleans on Aug. 29. Like the thousands of evacuees, the storm left them homeless and searching for a little bit of normalcy.
They found it on the field, scoring an important victory over an NFC South rival and an emotional win for their fans.
The Saints are playing this season for their deluged city and the displaced victims. They 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.
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, punctuating 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 (search) 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 touchdown, 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.
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.
Aaron Brooks threw passes of 11 and 25 yards to Joe Horn to move the Saints into field goal range. Carney then came onto the field to win a game 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.