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John DeShazier: Saints turn in vintage prime-time performance against Panthers

Posted Dec 8, 2013

Offense, defense click as Saints improve to 10-3, take over first place in NFC South

So much for a Seattle hangover.

Less than a week after the New Orleans Saints suffered their worst loss of the season in Seattle, they rebounded by hanging a defeat around the neck of Carolina that was about as resounding as any they’ve had this season, a 31-13 decision in which New Orleans scored 31 consecutive points after spotting the Panthers a 6-0 lead.

Not that any of that should’ve been a surprise inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night.

The Saints now are 15-3 in prime time home games since Sean Payton became coach in 2006, and have won 11 straight under the night lights at home. The previous 10, they’d won by an average score of 37-15. And they kept intact another streak, too: With Payton on the sideline, they haven’t lost consecutive games since the final three games of 2009.

Sunday’s victory vaulted the Saints (10-3) a game ahead of Carolina (9-4) in the NFC South Division standings, snapped Carolina’s eight-game winning streak and kept New Orleans in second place in the NFC, a game behind Seattle (11-2).

And it put to rest the notion that the Saints might’ve been adversely affected by an altered flight schedule following Monday’s loss in Seattle (the team was forced to leave Tuesday morning, rather than Monday night), or that the 34-7 defeat might’ve diluted its confidence.

The offense rolled up 373 yards and 31 points against a defense that only was allowing 13.1 points entering the game, and the Saints' defense produced five sacks against Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and held the Panthers to 239 yards, 190 less than it surrendered in Seattle.

“Obviously, it was a big win for us,” Payton said. “The concern I had coming in to the game was just having the energy you need to play a divisional game like this with a short week.

“I thought the schedule worked out and I thought the players handled that part of it well, and I thought they had enough energy. And I thought we played with a lot of emotion.”

Certainly, there was much to celebrate. Specifically, quarterback Drew Brees (30 for 42 for 313 yards and four touchdowns, without an interception) continued his assault on the NFL record books.

Saints-PanthersBrees entered the game needing 287 passing yards to become the fifth NFL player with 50,000 career passing yards – he did so and joined the exclusive company of Brett Favre, Dan Marino, John Elway and Peyton Manning.

And he raised his season totals to 4,107 yards (surpassing 4,000 for the eighth consecutive season, an NFL record) and to 33 touchdown passes (topping 30 for the sixth straight year, another NFL record).

“We were kidding him in (the locker room) that a lot of places, if the quarterback hits 50,000 yards, they would have fireworks, stop the game,” Payton said. “And we just kind of had a little nod, ‘Atta boy.’ But that is a pretty unique feat when you look at the history of our league.

“To be in that class of people now really hits on his consistency, his durability, his availability along with his skill set. We are happy for him and obviously proud.”

Said Brees: “The milestone is great. We high-fived and hugged each other in (the locker room), but that was the extent of it.

”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. We will reflect on all of this stuff after the season.”

When they reflect on Sunday night, they’ll like what they see.

Carolina scored on its first two possessions, field goals of 45 and 24 yards by Graham Gano. The second field goal was a solid victory for the Saints’ defense, with Carolina starting the drive at the Saints’ 32-yard line after a 32-yard punt return by Carolina receiver Ted Ginn and an accompanying 15-yard penalty for a face mask.

But after the first quarter – the Panthers held a time of possession advantage of 11:30-3:30 and converted four of six third-down attempts – the Saints turned dominant.

Continuing a drive that began in the first quarter, New Orleans took a 7-6 lead on Brees’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston with 13:35 left in the second quarter, capping a nine-play, 80-yard march.

After the defense forced its first punt, the offense promptly drove 86 yards on 11 plays to score on a 15-yard pass from Brees to Colston, the 62nd time that the combination had hooked up for a touchdown.

The defense forced another Carolina punt, and the offense added on another touchdown – a seven-play, 76-yard drive that ended on Brees’ 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with 18 seconds left in the first half, giving the Saints a 21-6 halftime lead.

From there, the defense didn’t allow the Panthers to mount an offensive threat. Defensive ends Junior Galette (a career-high three sacks) and Cameron Jordan (two) led the harassment of Newton (22 for 34 for 160 yards and a touchdown).

“I felt like we climbed a hurdle here,” Galette said. “It was a critical game. Cam (Newton) is an incredible athlete. We got a lot of preparation by facing Russell Wilson last week.”

And the offense added a Garrett Hartley field goal and a second touchdown pass from Brees to Graham, who caught his 14th touchdown of the season and is three shy of the NFL single-season record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end.

“It was a great night for the offense and the defense,” Graham said. “It was coming off a short week and a tough loss. The guys really bought in this week. We focused on the little details and it really showed.”

What showed was that the Saints, as they have all season after a loss, fully are capable of bouncing back. And doing so decisively.

“We were going to have to play well in all three phases, and I think by and large we did that,” Payton said. “We thought this is a team with a lot of confidence, there is no way you get as many wins as they have without having that confidence, so I was pleased with the way we handled the win and the way we played.”

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