CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Oct. 1, 2006) -- Six days after their emotional return to New Orleans, the Saints were due for a letdown.
Jake Delhomme threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Drew Carter midway through the fourth quarter to put the Panthers ahead to stay as Carolina handed New Orleans its first loss of the season, 21-18.
Playing on the road after beating Atlanta at the refurbished Superdome, the Saints took their first lead early in the fourth quarter.
"We didn't come in here thinking there was going to be a letdown," cornerback Fred Thomas said. "We came in here emotional and played."
But Thomas had trouble containing Smith.
The All-Pro caught three passes for 35 yards on a 91-yard drive. Then, with the Saints focusing on Smith and Keyshawn Johnson, Delhomme lobbed a 4-yard pass to a wide-open Carter to put Carolina ahead 14-10 with 7:15 left.
"Most definitely he wasn't 100 percent," Thomas said of Smith, who missed the first two games with a strained hamstring. "The guy is a competitor. He gets respect from around the league. He gets much respect from me."
DeShaun Foster's 43-yard touchdown run on third down with 1:45 left made it 21-10, with Johnson, brought in to give Smith help this season, throwing a big block.
"Key made a good block to the side, and then it was off to the races," said Foster, who had 105 yards on 16 carries. "He was like a safety out there."
The Saints, trying to go 4-0 for the first time since 1993, made it interesting on rookie Marques Colston 's 86-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 1:15 left. Drew Brees then connected with Joe Horn on the two-point conversion to make it 21-18.
But Carolina's Nick Goings recovered the onside kick to end it.
"The Cardiac Cats," said Smith, who had 10 catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. "No matter how ugly or how pretty it was we've accomplished what we set out to do. Our goal was at the beginning of the week was get back to .500."
Brees was 28 of 38 for 349 yards and a touchdown, Colston had five catches for 132 yards and Horn had five catches for 63 yards. But the Saints (3-1) had just 63 yards rushing.
Deuce McAllister had 39 yards on 11 carries, while rookie Reggie Bush was held to 22 yard on 11 carries and lost a fumble at the Carolina 21 in the second quarter.
"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," Bush said.
Despite being weary emotionally and physically, the Saints went on an 82-yard drive bridging the third and fourth quarters to take their first lead at 10-7 on McAllister's 3-yard run.
Twice the Saints had the drive extended by Panthers penalties, including a questionable pass interference call against Thomas Davis on fourth down from the Carolina 35.
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. 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.
The Saints, who sacked Michael Vick five times, sacked Delhomme just 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.
"This just shows that the offensive line is doing a good job," Foster said.
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 42-year-old Carney 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.
Johnson's 8-yard catch on the first play of the game made him the 26th player in NFL history to go over 10,000 receiving yards. ... Horn joined Eric Martin (532) as the only Saints with 500 receptions. ... Panthers rookie Richard Marshall started ahead of Ken Lucas at CB. Lucas said a sore neck and shoulder has affected his tackling. ... Saints special-teamer Curtis Deloatch, who recovered Steve Gleason's blocked punt for a touchdown 90 seconds into Monday's win over Atlanta, suffered a right hamstring injury during a first-quarter punt and did not return.