American football: New Orleans given lift as Carney kicks the Saints to surprise win

The running back Deuce McAllister scored twice, but the contest seemed destined for overtime until John Carney converted a game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining. There were cheers in Houston's Astrodome, which remains home for many victims, and also in Charlotte itself, where 350 Saints fans, evacuated to the city's Coliseum, were given tickets for the match by Carolina players.

"It's been emotional for us, but we're not in the same situation as those people in the shelters," said the Saints tackle Wayne Gandy. "It was a good break for us just to be able to go out and play football, but it's not just about us anymore."

Three of the worst teams from a year ago started the campaign with new head coaches, and for two there were encouraging starts.

The San Francisco 49ers held on for a 28-25 win over the St Louis Rams, ensuring a successful start to the Mike Nolan era. The quarterback Tim Rattay threw a pair of touchdowns, while a late Rams rally was ended by an interception.

In Miami, Nick Saban's impressive collegiate credentials look set to transfer to the professional game, as the Dolphins beat the Denver Broncos 34-10. Miami dominated all phases of the game, the quarterback Gus Frerotte throwing two touchdown passes, and the defensive end Jason Taylor returning a Denver fumble 85 yards for the final score.

"I'm really pleased for the players," Saban said. "They've suffered a little bit over the last year or so. They all wanted to prove something, and I'm happy we could help them do that."

However, the third coaching debutant had little to enjoy. Romeo Crennel saw his Cleveland Browns subside limply, losing 27-13 to the Cincinnati Bengals.