NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It only took six days — and a return to the Superdome — for Drew Brees and the Saints to shake off their worst performance this season and look like legitimate contenders again.
Brees passed for 313 yards and four touchdowns and New Orleans beat Carolina 31-13 on Sunday night to regain sole possession of first place in the NFC South and snap the Panthers’ winning streak at eight games.
“Love this offense. Love what Sean Payton’s put together,” Brees said. “I love the group of guys that I get a chance to play with.”
The Panthers’ defense had not allowed more than two touchdowns in a game this season until the Saints scored three in the second quarter alone, when Brees completed 14 of 16 passes for 159 yards.
The Saints also became the only team this season to score more than 24 points against Carolina, which entered the game No. 1 in scoring defense, allowing 13.1 points per game.
Brees’ first two scoring strikes went to Marques Colston, who made nine catches for 125 yards. Jimmy Graham added two TD catches, his second making it 31-6 in the fourth quarter.
“We just had great balance and a lot of guys made plays,” Brees said. “Marques came up with some huge catches, as did Jimmy. The line did a great job. We mixed and matched the personnel groups and what we were doing and defense did a great job of getting us the ball and giving us opportunities.”
New Orleans sacked Cam Newton five times and did not allow a touchdown until 5:15 remained. Junior Galette had three of New Orleans sacks and Cameron Jordan two.
Last Monday night, New Orleans went to Seattle looking to lead the race for the top playoff seeding in the NFC, only to fall 34-7, a result that also dropped the Saints into a tie with Carolina atop the division.
But the Saints looked sharp in their return home, where they are 7-0, and became the first team not to lose a turnover to the Panthers all season. Brees looked more like his usual self, completing 30 of 42 passes en route to becoming only the fifth QB in NFL history to eclipse 50,000 career yards passing.
“We knew the challenge, especially on a short week playing against a great divisional opponent in the Carolina Panthers,” Brees said. “They had won eight in a row, so they were rolling.
“But we wanted to kind of hit our stride and get our swagger back and no better way than to come in the dome and do that. All three phases played exceptionally well tonight. We got a great team win.”
New Orleans now owns a one-game lead over the Panthers with three games to go, but also must travel to Carolina two weeks.
Newton was 22 of 34 passing for 160 yards, while DeAngelo Williams, returning from a quad contusion that sidelined him last week, rushed 13 times for 52 yards as the Panthers struggled to move the ball on most of their drives after the first quarter, when Graham Gano hit two field goals. Gano had a third chance from 49 yards in the third quarter, but kicked it wide right.
Colston nearly had a third TD, but it was overturned on review and the Panthers mounted a goal-line stand to force a short field goal that made it 24-6 in the third quarter. The Panthers, however, were unable to build an momentum from that sequence.
New Orleans started slow and trailed 6-0, but seemed ignited by Darren Sproles’ 38-yard run late in the first quarter. That set up Colston’s first score on a 6-yard catch early in the second quarter.
On their next possession, the Saints drove 86 yards in 11 plays, capped by Colston’s second TD on a 15-yard pass.
“You’ve just got to see him throughout the week,” Colston said about Brees. “The man works like I’ve never seen. He deserves every bit of success that he gets.”
New Orleans got the ball again on its own 24 with 2:01 left in the half, and Brees immediately found Lance Moore for 21 yards, Colston for 19 yards and Sproles for 20, setting up Graham’s 5-yard TD catch.
The Panthers had the ball for 11:30 of the first quarter, showing an early ability to move the ball in the face of an energized and loud Superdome crowd, but only got two field goals out of it after New Orleans came up with clutch third-down stops, including one on third and goal from the 6.