CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — New Orleans return specialist Marcus Murphy believes the Saints are close to getting their first win of the season.
They were in position to do that Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, leading early in the third quarter before the Panthers came back to win 27-22.
Luke McCown, starting in place of the injured Drew Brees, completed 31 of 38 passes for 310 yards, but it wasn’t enough to save New Orleans (0-3) from falling three games behind division-leading Carolina and Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South.
“For his first start, I thought Luke did a really good job,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “He handled the looks that we were getting. I thought he showed a lot of poise, and I was really proud of the way he played.
“But our margin of error isn’t that good to overcome. Some of the miscues that can come up in a game — we’ve got to look to get those things corrected.”
It was the first game Brees has missed because of injury since joining the Saints in 2006. It’s unclear how long Brees he will be out.
“I prepared to play well and I expect to play well,” said McCown, 2-8 as a starter. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I know that you’re not around this long if you can’t play.”
It’s also the first time New Orleans has opened the season 0-3 since 2012, when the Saints lost their first four games en route to a 7-9 finish.
“We do think we are close, we just have to finish,” said Murphy, who had a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the third quarter. “Some things haven’t been going our way. We’ve been practicing hard; we have been putting it together all season. We just have to come out, work harder and finish.”
The Saints led 16-10 after Murphy’s touchdown return, set up after the Panthers’ Teddy Williams had been flagged for running along the sideline on the play before, forcing another kick.
But after New Orleans missed the extra point, Carolina came right back with quarterback Cam Newton connecting with tight end Greg Olsen for his second TD of the game to give Carolina its first lead at 17-16.
Newton threw for 315 yards and also ran for a score, a 13-yard bootleg around the left side early in the fourth quarter that put the Panthers up 27-16.
After Graham Gano’s 47-yard field goal, Newton appeared to change the play at the line of scrimmage on a third-and-2 at the Saints 13.
The athletic 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback faked the handoff into the line and rolled to the left and coasted into the end zone for the 35th rushing touchdown of his career, tying him with Steve Grogan and Randall Cunningham for seventh-most in NFL history among quarterbacks.
The Saints cut the lead to 27-22 on a 2-yard TD run by Khiry Robinson, but Panthers cornerback Josh Norman leaped to intercept McCown’s pass to Brandin Cooks in the corner of the end zone.
“It was the exact same play we ran a couple of plays before to (Marques) Colston on the other side,” McCown said. “Josh Norman is a young corner and a good player, and he’s aggressive. He reads well, but we felt like we had something on him. With a particular concept, we could get him to set his feet, and Cooks could run right by him.
“In the moment, we felt like we had them on their heels and we wanted to take a shot.”
NOTES: Panthers DE Charles Johnson (hamstring) and RB Jonathan Stewart (leg) left the game in the second half with injuries and did not return.