Source: USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS — The NFC South division title and a first-round playoff bye are the New Orleans Saints’ to lose.
They rebounded in a big way from their embarrassment six nights earlier in Seattle, breaking open Sunday night’s game with three second-quarter touchdown passes by Drew Brees and whipping the Carolina Panthers 31-13 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We’re extremely hard to beat anywhere if we don’t turn the ball over, but certainly at home. That’s winning-caliber football,” said Brees, who threw for 313 yards and four scores.
“And then if you combine that with the ability to be balanced and score points offensively and a defense that’s as stingy as ours, then that’s championship football.”
The Saints (10-3) looked the part, despite a short week that had coach Sean Payton concerned about their energy level after Monday’s 34-7 blowout loss in Seattle.
The defense made two crucial stops early, holding the Panthers (9-4) to a pair of first-quarter field goals before Brees and his receivers took over in the second.
“We wanted to throw it early and often, and the key was just opening up and getting the right help for the tackles and mixing up the protections,” Payton said. “Kind of changed some personnel groupings up, and I thought we got in a little bit of a rhythm.”
Brees hit receiver Marques Colston for touchdowns of 6 and 15 yards, then connected with tight end Jimmy Graham for a 5-yarder with 18 seconds to go in the half, and the rout was on.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was sacked five times by defensive ends Junior Galette and Cam Jordan and didn’t get Carolina into the end zone until they trailed by 25 late in the fourth quarter.
“We took some of their best punches early, but I think we bounced back,” Jordan said. “We’ve always been a resilient defense, and we played great in the second half.”
The Saints now own the NFC’s second-best record behind the Seahawks and a one-game division lead over the Panthers, who had been on a franchise-record eight-game winning streak and host the rematch Dec. 22 in Charlotte.
“The things that they do here, they do very, very well,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the Superdome, where the Saints improved to 7-0 this season. “We will see how things go when they come to Carolina.”
First, the Panthers must host the New York Jets, while the Saints go to St. Louis and try to put their recent road woes — which also included a 26-20 loss to the Jets on Nov. 3 — behind them.
As Brees pointed out, the Saints haven’t played well in St. Louis, squeaking out with a 28-23 victory in their championship season of 2009 and losing 31-21 in 2011.
“I think we’re at that point in the season where hopefully the veteran players understand how important these games are,” Payton said. “I think they do.”
Not turning over the ball helped the Saints on Sunday, along with converting 58% of their third downs (7-of-12) and scoring four touchdowns on five trips into the red zone. They added a field goal in the third quarter, and Brees went back to Graham for an 8-yard touchdown early in the fourth.
Only late in the fourth quarter did the Panthers score again, capping an 11-play, 61-yard drive with Newton’s 17-yard strike to Steve Smith on fourth-and-goal with 5:15 to go after yet another Saints sack had pushed them back.
“I felt as if those guys just were better than us today,” said Newton, who finished 22-of-34 passing for 160 yards and ran for 48 yards on six carries.
“Are they better than us? No. But today, it showed the name of the game is scoring more points than the other team. Those guys did, and we just got the short end of the stick.”
Brees, 34, set multiple records in the win. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards or more in eight consecutive seasons and the fastest quarterback to reach 50,000 career passing yards in his 183rd game, surpassing Peyton Manning’s mark of 191.
Only Brett Favre (71,838), Manning (64,009), Dan Marino (61,361) and John Elway (51,475) have more passing yards than Brees, who is in his 13th NFL season and eighth with the Saints — one he hopes is headed for the same direction as their title run four years ago.
“We high-fived and hugged a little bit in the locker room. That’s the extent of it,” Brees said. “It’s on to St. Louis this week on the road. We have to go on the road and win a big game. It’s been a little while since we did that. The challenges only get greater.”
Follow national NFL reporter Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.