Charlotte, N.C. – The New Orleans Saints have had more than a few labels affixed to them during the first half of their season, and not all of them flattering. But today, they wear a title that they absolutely hope and intend to cling to for the duration of the season:
NFC South Division leaders.
With a 28-10 victory over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night, the Saints (4-4) mounted their first two-game winning streak of the season, claimed their third win in four games, obliterated a seven-game road losing streak in the regular season that stretched back to last season, and surged to the division lead over the Panthers (3-5-1).
It was the second straight win by at least 18 points by the Saints, who completed a three-games-in-12-days test of will with a Sunday night-Thursday night, prime-time seminar on recovery and stamina.
"It's a big win," Coach Sean Payton said. "I think the challenges were obvious with regards to logistics. It's something that you really can't, as a coach, come out and address.
"Thursday night games are one thing, but to play a Sunday night game and come back and play on Thursday … first off, it's not an excuse for your players. You don't want it to be. But I would say it's silly. It shouldn't happen."
Specifically, Payton said a team that's given the task of traveling for the Thursday night game would be better served to play its previous Sunday game during the afternoon, rather than at night. The added hours rest would be beneficial.
Still, the Saints navigated the back-to-back undefeated, and finished the second quarter of the season with a 3-1 record.
"We finished games," right tackle Zach Strief said. "And really, a lot of these finishes have come in the third quarter, the beginning of the fourth quarter, where instead of letting a team back in, we've been able to kind of open games up a little bit.
"We've talked a lot about changing little things that are going to make big differences, and I think this is the result of it. Guys getting down in bounds, ball security, doing the right things, being into the game and understanding situations has led us to a better quarter.
"And we're fortunate because we're in a division that's struggling right now, and we just took the lead in it. It's on us to keep it. It's much better not to need help and we don't need it right now."
The Saints have looked like anything but a team that needed help in their last two games, a 44-23 wipeout of Green Bay on Sunday night and Thursday's win over the Panthers. Carolina was bested by nearly every statistical measure.
New Orleans had more first downs (27-15), total yards (375-231) and passing yards (270-122), and scored touchdowns on four of five trips to the red zone. The Saints committed a pair of first-quarter turnovers but evened the ledger with a matching interception and fumble recovery, and also sacked Carolina's Cam Newton four times.
The Saints were particularly sharp on defense early. They turned over the ball on their first two offensive possessions – a ricocheted interception from quarterback Drew Brees and a sack which led to a fumble and Carolina recovery.
Each time, the defense stiffened and forced a punt. All night, it was highlighted by a play-making secondary that was led by cornerback Keenan Lewis, who shadowed Carolina rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin for much of the game and helped limited Benjamin to two catches for 18 yards, though Benjamin was targeted 10 times. Lewis finished with three passes defensed and three tackles.
"That's a real good team, a good defense," Payton said of Carolina. "I was proud of how we fought through some adversity. I thought as the game went on, we were able to weather the early turnovers.
"Defensively, we came up with some big plays. I thought we were outstanding. They had a few big plays. You watch Keenan Lewis – I just finished telling him, he was outstanding. I thought we had good team defense, the turnovers were significant. In the end, I thought we just hung in there and kept battling."
Brees (24 for 34 for 297 yards and a touchdown) rebounded from the interception and lost fumble to play his usual, efficient game. The offense had time to find its rhythm because the defense turned away Carolina time and again.
The defense broke through in the second quarter with a table-setting play: On third-and-9 from Carolina's 8-yard line, Newton dropped back to pass, was flushed to his right and then was sacked from behind by Junior Galette, his first of two sacks.
Galette's collision separated Newton from the football, linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered at the 4 with 3:20 left in the first half and Mark Ingram (a career-high 30 carries for 100 yards) needed a couple of carries to smash his way into the end zone from 3 yards out.
The 7-0 lead was doubled right before halftime when the defense forced a punt, the offense took over possession at its 15 with 1:49 left and drove 85 yards to score with three seconds remaining, aided by a couple of significant plays.
On the first – third-and-10 from the Saints' 15-yard line – Brees connected with Kenny Stills on a 17-yard pass. On the second – third-and-17 from the Carolina 33, with 14 seconds left – receiver Robert Meachem got behind the secondary in the right corner of the end zone and drew a 32-yard pass interference penalty, giving the Saints the ball at the 1 with six seconds left.
Brees threw a touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham on the next play, giving New Orleans a 14-0 halftime lead.
Carolina scored its lone touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, a 10-play, 81-yard drive that ended on Newton's 10-yard scramble. The Saints countered on their next drive – a 14-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 6:10 and ended on a 1-yard leap by Brees on fourth-and-goal.
The teams exchanged punts before rounding out the scoring in the fourth quarter – a 31-yard field goal by Carolina's Graham Gano, and another 3-yard run by Ingram, who raised his touchdown total to a career-high six this season.
And with that, the Saints took over first place in the NFC South.
"We're not really worried about the past, the mistakes everybody said that we made," Lewis said, referring to the Saints' 1-3 start. "We know we're a great defense. So from here on out we've got the confidence that we need, the leaders are stepping up, people are having fun.
"The first couple of games when we were losing, we weren't having fun out there. So Coach just told us to go out there and do what we do.
"It doesn't matter how you start, it matters how you finish. We've got to play everybody again in the division and we've got some tough games coming up, so we're not going to get ahead of ourselves over a game like this. We're happy that we won on the road but we're going to get focused for these last eight."
The race to improve will continue.
"One thing we've kept emphasizing is that we're in a sprint to get better," Payton said. "We really are. Our players have bought into that, and they really believe that. So that's encouraging.
"We'll make the corrections, we'll make some of the adjustments and things we have to do off this tape. I'm encouraged with how they've handled the practice process. That's been good."