The first-place Saints traveled to Charlotte, NC to face the Carolina Panthers in an NFC South tilt and the two teams were evenly matched throughout the game. It was the hometown team, though, that prevailed in the tightly fought battle, 21-18. While the Saints fell short on the scoreboard in the end, they certainly earned the respect of the Panthers. "They are obviously a good football team," said Panthers head coach John Fox of the Saints. "They (the Saints) are going to be around as the season wears on. We were climbing out of the doldrums starting 0-2. We had our backs against the wall. Any time the NFC South plays, it`s a dogfight and today was no different." Drew Brees paced the way for the Saints offensively with 349 yards passing, on 28 completions to 38 attempts, and registered a passer rating of 110.5 The Saints` rushing attack mustered 63 yards on the ground against the powerful Panthers defensive unit. The Saints out-gained the Panthers, 407 yards to 324 yards. Defensively, cornerback Fred Thomas led all Saints` defenders with 12 tackles. "We didn`t come in here thinking there was going to be a letdown," said Thomas said. "We came in here emotional and played." The Saints had taken the lead, 10-7, early in the fourth quarter on a Deuce McAllister three-yard run, but the Panthers responded with a drive of their own, as they effectively mixed the run and the short pass and went 91 yards in slightly over six minutes. The Saints then took over deep in their own territory following an untimely penalty on a kickoff return, and were able to only muster 28 yards in five plays before being forced the punt. The Panthers were effective in running down the clock shortly after the two minute warning and on a third-and-six, RB DeShaun Foster, who looked to be bottled up, sprung through a hole and rumbled 43-yards for a touchdown. "We knew the play was coming, in fact, we were calling it out as soon as they lined up," said linebacker Scott Fujita. "We pursued Foster well and he just got through. It was a tough one and a play that we wish we could have over again." Even though the Saints were trailing by 11, Drew Brees and the Bless You Boys came right back and Brees drilled rookie wide receiver Marques Colston over the middle for an 86-yard touchdown reception, and following a two point conversion, the score was cut to 21-18, which ended up being the final margin. The Black and Gold, playing on the road six days after an emotional Monday night rout of Atlanta in their return to the Superdome, the Saints took their first lead early in the fourth quarter. Head Coach Sean Payton made sure his squad avoided the proverbial letdown and had his team sharp and on edge throughout the battle. Ever-dangerous Pro Bowl Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith caught three passes for 35 yards on the 91-yard go-ahead drive. Then, with the Saints backed up to their own goal-line, former Saint Jake Delhomme lobbed a 4-yard pass to Carter to put Carolina ahead 14-10 with 7:15 left. Foster`s 43-yard touchdown run on third down with 1:45 left made it 21-10. "We didn`t play to our full capability. We made mistakes. I made mistakes, and you just can`t do that in a hostile environment," Reggie Bush said. The Saints special teams unit attempted an onside`s kickoff, but Carolina`s Nick Goings recovered the onside kick to end it. The Panthers big-play wideouts were effective throughout the game, but didn`t turn in the big plays which have defined their impressive careers. Smith, in his second game after hamstring injuries, had 10 catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. Johnson added 6 catches for 63 yards as the Panthers (2-2), won their second straight. The Saints (3-1) were trying to go to 4-0 for the first time since 1993. Unfortunately, the team was unable to garner their third straight road victory, but headed back to New Orleans with a normal week of preparation staring them in the face. "When you come here and play a quality opponent, you can`t make mistakes, said tight end Ernie Conwell. "They made more plays in key situations than we did." "We have to be ready for an angry Tampa Bay team," said Brees. "We need to stay focused and have a great week of practice and meetings. As bitter as this loss is, we have to remember that it`s one game and move on. Nobody in our locker room is feeling sorry for themselves and we know that Tampa isn`t (feeling bad about our loss). We need to get ready. It`s a divisional game." Despite having a short week of practice after Monday night`s 23-3 victory over the Falcons, the Saints were up to the challenge and didn`t come out flat, as many people predicted, on Sunday. In fact, the Saints mounted an impressive 82-yard drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters to take a 10-7 lead on Deuce McAllister`s 3-yard run. Credit Payton for aggressively attacking the Panthers` vaunted defense and utilizing the running game and Brees`s pinpoint accuracy. Twice the Saints had the drive extended by Panthers penalties, including a pass interference call against Thomas Davis on fourth down from the Carolina 35 after tight end Ernie Conwell raced out into the flat. The Panthers got a break to take the early lead. Delhomme threw a 15-yard pass over the middle that Johnson bobbled at the 9-yard line. The officials ruled it a catch, and Delhomme quickly got the team to the line of scrimmage and tossed a slant pass to Smith for a touchdown on the next play. Replays later showed the ball hit the ground before Johnson got control, but Carolina had a 7-0 lead. However, Payton and his coaching staff didn`t have the luxury of being able to see the replay quickly, and the staff didn`t want to risk burning a timeout. The Saints had earlier won an official challenge, but the play proved too close to call. The Saints, who sacked Michael Vick five times Monday, sacked Delhomme once despite the Panthers losing another player on their banged-up offensive line. Left guard Mike Wahle left in the second quarter with an illness and did not return, forcing rookie Will Montgomery into the lineup. Center Justin Hartwig missed his third straight game with a pulled groin. The Saints cut the lead to 7-3 on John Carney`s 31-yard field goal with 4:05 left in the first half, making him the third kicker in NFL history with 400 career field goals. But the venerable kicker was wide-right on a 43-yarder as the half expired, his first miss in 11 attempts this season. It was the first meeting as head coaches for the Panthers` John Fox and Sean Payton of the Saints since they were the coordinators on the New York Giants team that reached the Super Bowl at the end of the 2000 season. The loss was the Saints` first defeat of the season, and leaves the team in a tie for first place with the Atlanta Falcons, who handily defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 32-10. Both teams stand at 3-1, while Carolina improved to 2-2. Tampa Bay, 0-3, was idle and will visit the Saints next Sunday at the sold-out Superdome.