NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The Saints chose to play for a healthy playoff roster rather than one more inconsequential victory.

The result was 31-21 Carolina victory over New Orleans on Sunday as Jake Delhomme and the Panthers’ starters pulled away against the Saints’ reserves.

Drew Brees played only one full series and was 4-of-5 for 46 yards for the Saints. He led a scoring drive that ended with Reggie Bush’s short touchdown run that put New Orleans up 7-0.

Brees, coming back from complicated offseason throwing shoulder surgery that left his future in doubt, finished the regular season with career-best 4,418 yards passing. His 26 touchdown passes were one short of tying his career regular-season best of 2004. He got a standing ovation as he trotted off the field with his arm in the air at the start of the Saints’ second offensive series.

Saints coach Sean Payton gave running back Deuce McAllister the day off. He and the rest of the Saints will have next weekend off as well, since New Orleans, which was 3-13 in 2005, improved to 10-6 this season, good enough for the second playoff seeding in the NFC.

Bush played little more than a quarter. On defense, New Orleans rested several starters, including Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith.

The final whistle concluded a season of unfulfilled expectations for Carolina (8-8), which was one of the favorites to win the NFC South when the season began. A combination of injuries and a late four-game losing streak had them out of postseason contention by the time they took the field Sunday.

But with a chance to avoid a losing season and sweep the season series against New Orleans, the Panthers kept most of their starters in late into the fourth quarter.

Returning from a thumb injury that had kept him out for three games, Delhomme started strong. He completed his first four passes, leading Carolina on a 73-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 22-yard pass to Steve Smith to tie the game at 7.

Delhomme was 23-of-27 for 207 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Smith, who had 85 yards receiving.

New Orleans regained the lead early in the second quarter on a drive highlighted by reserve quarterback Jamie Martin’s 65-yard completion to Devery Henderson. On the next play, Jamaal Branch, an NFL Europe prospect who had spent most of the season on the practice squad, turned a short pass into a 7-yard touchdown.

Branch became the primary running back for the Saints after the first quarter. He had 29 yards on 10 carriers. Martin wound up completing 16-of-24 passes for 208 yards. He was intercepted once.

The Panthers went ahead 28-14 in the third quarter after Chris Gamble’s 18-yard interception return TD and Delhomme’s 15-yard scoring pass to Smith.

New Orleans closed to 28-21 when 38-year-old Fred McAfee, normally a special teams player, scored on a draw on third-and-goal from the 6.

AP-ES-12-31-06 1602EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.