CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) If the New Orleans Saints hope to make a run at the playoffs they'll first need to figure out how to kick the football through the uprights.
Seems pretty simple, right?
And yet for the second straight week, disaster struck when rookie kicker Wil Lutz walked on the field.
With the Saints looking to cut Carolina's lead to seven in the second quarter, Vernon Butler blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt and Luke Kuechly returned it 73 yards to set up a Carolina touchdown before halftime. Kuechly actually scored on the return, but the Panthers were flagged for a block in the back. It didn't matter as Cam Newton found Ted Ginn Jr. for a 40-yard TD strike on the next play from scrimmage and the Panthers went on to a 23-20 win .
It wasn't quite as dramatic as four days earlier when Lutz's potential game-winning extra point was blocked by Justin Simmons and returned for a defensive 2-point conversion in a 25-23 loss to the Denver Broncos, but the 10-point swing was just as costly.
''It's two weeks in a row that we've had a blocked kick that's resulted in pretty catastrophic results,'' Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. ''So I think we're doing a lot of good things, but unfortunately there's a couple critical things that need to be fixed in order for us to win and be successful.''
Some other things to know from the Panthers' win:
SACKS ARE COMING IN BUNCHES
The Panthers defense is bringing the heat with 18 sacks in their last four games.
''Their front's playing well,'' said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose team has lost four of its past five games at Carolina. ''It forces you to come underneath. ... You have to win inside or separate inside. We forced one on the one pick down the field, but it was obviously a more patient approach.''
Brees threw for 465 yards in a victory against Carolina earlier this season. On Thursday night, he threw for 285 in a loss.
''This is a defense that thrives on you getting impatient. We knew that coming in,'' Bress said. ''I tried to force one that I shouldn't have, and it was a bad result. Other than that I thought we were efficient.''
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson implored his team to not repeat last week's collapse against Kansas City while on the sideline. Carolina's defense snuffed out the Saints' final push for a game-tying field goal attempt.
''There was a feeling of `let's stop it,''' Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. ''I think that's the most important thing. I think Charles Johnson said it best, about stopping people. That was good to see Charles step up and talk like that. I think it helped the guys.''
Despite close losses and losing records, both the Panthers and Saints have optimism going into the season's stretch run, in pursuit of first-place Atlanta. The Falcons lead the NFC South at 6-4, but all three teams behind them are two games or fewer behind.
''Of course we have our hopes high,'' said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who passed for 192 yards and a touchdown on Thursday. ''We still have our sights to everything that we want, but it's still right in front of our eyes. It's going to be up to us to focus in, hone in, and we're going to mend up for the next couple of days and get ready for Oakland.''
Brees, whose team plays at home against Los Angeles and Detroit next, sees a similar path for the Saints. New Orleans has two games against Tampa Bay and one against Atlanta to come.
''I know there's a lot of football left to be played,'' Brees said. ''Nothing has been determined at this point.''
PANTHERS RUN GAME STRUGGLES
The Panthers running game continues to struggle this season. They were held to 50 yards rushing on 27 carries against the Saints, a mere 1.9-yard average.
It's part of a disturbing trend for Carolina, a team that ran for at least 100 yards in all 19 games last season. Carolina had just six first downs in the second half.
INJURIES TO WATCH
Both teams will have injuries to watch moving forward,
The Panthers lost linebacker Luke Kuechly (concussion), center Ryan Kalil (shoulder), pass rusher Mario Addison (foot) and cornerback Leonard Johnson (chest) to injuries.
The Saints lost running back Mark Ingram to a possible concussion.
AP freelance writer Eli Pacheco contributed to this report.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL