CHARLOTTE, N.C., Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Ricky Williams ran for a one-yard touchdown on the game's final play Sunday as the New Orleans Saints squandered a big lead before rallying for a 27-25 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
In the previous meeting between the teams here on Nov. 12, Williams suffered a fractured left ankle late in the fourth quarter of the Saints' 20-10 victory. The injury forced the former Heisman Trophy winner to miss the final six regular season games and a playoff contest.
On Sunday, it did not look like the Saints (3-1) would need Williams to play the role of hero after building a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.
But the Panthers were able to rally and took a 25-20 lead with 1:48 remaining when rookie Steve Smith returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown.
Aaron Brooks, however, was able to lead the Saints on a 13-play, 82-yard drive for the winning score. Brooks kept the march alive with a 14-yard completion to Willie Jackson on fourth and 10 that moved the ball to the Carolina 41.
Brooks also found Joe Horn for 22 yards, moving the ball to the five. The Saints then turned to Williams on the game's final play, despite not having a timeout.
On second-and-goal from the one with one second remaining, Brooks handed to Williams, who went around the left side untouched to give New Orleans a dramatic victory. Williams finished with 147 yards on 31 attempts.
"As a running back you never expect to be in that situation," Williams said. "It's usually a two-minute drill and we're throwing the ball. It was the first time in my life that I've been in this situation. I feel fortunate that coach had enough faith in me to give me the ball."
"The play goes both ways, but we use an open formation," Saints Pro Bowl left tackle Willie Roaf said. "Ricky knows on that play he could go left or right. It was designed to go left, but he can go either way."
Brooks also had confidence on the game's final play.
"I try not to be the offensive coordinator," Brooks said. "The call is made and I live with it and try to make the best out of the situation regardless of what defense they are in. You have to be confident in every call the offensive coordinator makes.
"Even if they put a linebacker out there, you are talking about our best man against their best man. I think it is fair to put Ricky in those situations."
The final drive also helped Brooks atone for a rough afternoon in which he went just 14 of 40 for 180 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He also carried seven times for 49 yards.
Rookie Chris Weinke was 21 of 39 for 196 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for the Panthers, who have lost four straight following a season-opening victory at Minnesota.
"We just put ourselves in too much of a negative spot against a good club in the first half of the ballgame," Panthers coach George Seifert said. "In the second half, we played well until the final drive."
Weinke struggled for much of the afternoon, especially in the first two quarters when he lost two fumbles and threw an interception.
But he got things together in the second half, nearly rallying the Panthers against one of the NFL's top defenses.
Rookie Michael Lewis opened the door for the Panthers, fumbling a punt and Michael Hawkes recovered for Carolina at the 15.
Four plays after the miscue, Weinke found Donald Hayes for a nine-yard touchdown pass over the midde, pulling the Panthers within 17-12 with 4:34 remaining in the third quarter.
John Carney gave the Saints a 20-12 lead with six seconds left in the quarter, connecting from 39 yards. Williams set up the score with a 46-yard run down the right sideline to the Carolina 33.
Weinke was able to rally the Panthers back, finding tight end Wesley Wallls with a 23-yard touchdown pass with 3:42 remaining, pulling Carolina within 20-18. Weinke threw incomplete on the conversion that would have tied the game.
"It was nice to come out in the second half and be able to execute our offense the way it is supposed to be executed," Weinke said. "To come out and do what we did and get a touchdown to take the lead was huge."
New Orleans went three-and-out on its ensuing possession and Smith gave the Panthers the lead on his punt return. It was the second scoring return of the season for a score for Smith, a third-round pick. He brought back a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in the opening week against Minnesota.
A turnover by Weinke led to the game's first points after he fumbled and safety Sammy Knight recovered at the Carolina 12.
Two plays later, Brooks found tight end Cam Cleeland open for a 12-yard touchdown pass, giving New Orleans a 7-0 lead with 7:57 left in the opening quarter.
On Carolina's ensuing possession, Weinke was sacked by linebacker Darrin Smith, who jarred the ball loose. Tackle La'Roi Glover recovered the fumble at the Panthers' 33.
The Saints cashed that turnover into three more points after Carney connected from 30 yards for a 10-0 advantage.
Weinke's struggles continued in the second quarter after he was intercepted by linebacker Charlie Clemons at the Panthers' 28.
Brooks and New Orleans made Panthers pay for that mistake after he found Cleeland for a 16-yard touchdown pass, extending the lead to 17-0 with 12:49 remaining before intermission. Walls, a former Saint, finished with five catches for 61 yards.
John Kasay kicked field goals of 46 and 52 yards in the final 3:59 of the first half, allowing the Panthers close to 17-6.