Brian Allee-Walsh

The Super Bowl favorite Saints gave fans reason for concern vs. Carolina. Here’s why.

Several words come to mind when trying to describe Sunday’s performance by the New Orleans Saints defense and none of them are suitable for public consumption.

So, I’ll keep it clean.

Troubling. Disturbing. Unfortunate.

Put them all together and it adds up to a 33-14 loss to the floundering Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a game that coulda, woulda and shoulda resulted in the Saints’ recording their franchise-best 14th victory.

What was supposed to be a positive final tuneup for the NFC’s No. 1 team in preparation for the postseason turned into an ugly reminder of days gone by for a defensive unit that closed out the regular season against the Panthers the way it started against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1.

Not ready to play.

Bucs’ journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick exposed the Saints in a 48-40 upset win Sept. 9 at the Superdome. And on the last Sunday of 2018, Panthers undrafted rookie QB Kyle Allen made a name for himself in his NFL debut in the absence of injured starter Cam Newton and backup Taylor Heinicke.

Allen completed 16 of 27 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns and also scored on a 1-yard sneak before exiting the game in the fourth quarter with a 30-7 lead after being driven into the turf by rookie DE Marcus Davenport.

Afterward, Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t mince words, laying blame at his feet, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and everyone else connected with the defense for squandering a golden opportunity to make franchise history.

“We could have been 14-2,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said. “We’re 13-3. I’m pissed. I’m overly irritated about not being able to capitalize on our situation at hand.”

I’ll give the offense a pass since five starters didn’t play — MVP candidate QB Drew Brees, RB Alvin Kamara, WR Ted Ginn Jr., LT Terron Armstead and RG Larry Warford. Backup QB Teddy Bridgewater produced a few shining moments, including helping WR Michael Thomas establish a franchise single-season record for most receiving yards.

Best of all, soon-to-be free agent Bridgewater emerged in one piece.

Am I making too much out of Sunday’s game? Perhaps. After all, the Saints still own NFC homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, meaning they will host a divisional round game at 2:40 p.m. Jan. 13 against the lowest seed remaining from this weekend’s wildcard games.

My hunch is it will be the survivor of No. 5 Seattle versus No. 4 Dallas on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Look for No. 3 Chicago to derail visiting No. 6 Philadelphia on Sunday and move on to play No. 2 Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 12.

Regardless what happens on Wildcard Weekend, I know this:

If the Saints defense doesn’t get its act together, especially coverage-challenged cornerback Eli Apple who reminds me more and more of penalty-plagued DB Brandon Browner back in 2015, a promising season could end with a loss in New Orleans.

And not a victory in Atlanta at Super Bowl LIII on Feb.3.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at