Delhomme again in must-win Panthers-Saints tilt

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2005

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's not exactly a repeat performance for Jake Delhomme, but it's about as close as he can get.

In the 1999 regular-season finale, Delhomme was a wide-eyed quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, trying to keep the Carolina Panthers out of the playoffs.

On the fifth anniversary of his second career start, Delhomme will be on the field Sunday when the Saints play at the Panthers. He's practically a veteran now, and in this meeting, Delhomme will be trying to get Carolina into the playoffs — and keep the Saints out.

New Orleans (7-8) and Carolina (7-8) head into the finale both trying to earn the NFC's final wild-card berth.

For Delhomme, it is pretty close to how he pictured the final game unfolding.

''When I saw Jan. 2 and the Saints and Panthers, the first thing that went through my mind is that both of us will be playing for the division crown,'' Delhomme said. ''I fully anticipated them having a real good season, and I anticipated us having a real good season. I thought you'd have two teams with 10, 11, 12 wins fighting it out for the division crown.''

Atlanta already has the NFC South title wrapped up, but the Saints and Panthers both have a legitimate shot at the postseason.

For the Panthers to get in, they must win and have one of three things happen: A Minnesota loss, a Seattle win or tie, or a St. Louis loss or tie.

The Saints have to win to get in, and have either St. Louis loss or tie, or Seattle and Minnesota win or tie.

''We don't know what's going to happen with these other games,'' Delhomme said. ''We could still possibly win and the Saints could possibly win, and neither one of us would get in. It is a big game, but it's big because it's the next one and it could be the last one. That's why it's such a big game. We won't know until 3:15 or so Sunday whether this game means anything or not.''

That either team can get into the playoffs is impressive considering where they've come from this season.

Carolina, the defending NFC champions, started the season 1-7 and riddled with injuries to key players. But a five-game winning streak got the Panthers back in the hunt.

The Saints were 4-8 a month ago, and fans were calling for coach Jim Haslett to be fired. Three consecutive wins have temporarily silenced the discord, but Haslett thinks his job security — or lack of it — is what turned the Saints around.

''If you are going to get into coaching, sooner or later they are going to fire you or at least talk about it,'' Haslett said. ''You just deal with it. One thing it did was brought our team closer together and we've sort of rallied behind each other. We've been fighting through it the whole time.''

So have the Panthers, who lost 14 players this season to injury.

Delhomme has been a huge part of the turnaround. In November and December, he has 18 touchdowns to four interceptions, has completed 62.1 percent of his passes and has posted a QB rating of 106.4.

It's put the Panthers in position to get into the playoffs, and it's only fitting it comes down to a game against the Saints for him to finish the job.

Born and raised in Louisiana, where he still makes his home in Breaux Bridge, Delhomme spent five years with his hometown Saints before signing as a free agent with Carolina before the 2003 season.

He made two starts in 1999 for New Orleans, including the finale in Carolina when coach Mike Ditka was on his way out and the Saints were pretty bad.

The Panthers had a chance to get into the playoffs that year if they won — and won big. Carolina needed to beat New Orleans by 18 points more than Green Bay would outscore Arizona to claim the tiebreaker on net points in conference games.

The Panthers threw the ball 41 times that day, and went for it on fourth down in their own territory late in the game. Defensively, they harassed Delhomme into four interceptions.

''He played terrible,'' safety Mike Minter said. ''That's not to be talking bad about the guy. It was great for us. That's all that matters. He was young. They threw him up in there, and we reaped some benefits from that.''

Delhomme also threw for 243 yards and ran for a late touchdown that cut into Carolina's scoring margin. Still, it was a painful game for him.

''I got the dog beat out of me,'' he said.

Delhomme was also a part of the last time the teams met with a playoff spot on the line. He was a Saints backup in 2002 in the finale, when New Orleans had postseason possibilities.

Carolina won 10-6 to end the Saints' season. Fans booed quarterback Aaron Brooks and chanted ''We want Jake! We want Jake!''

Now they wince at seeing Delhomme, who has seemed to master his former team. In three games against the Saints, Delhomme has completed 49 of 79 passes for 566 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions — and three Carolina wins.

''We liked Jake when he was here,'' Haslett said. ''Jake is a heck of a quarterback. ... I'm proud of Jake and what he's accomplished.''

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