For the Saints, the week started with a promise.
They vowed that their performance at Seattle on Monday — when they gained their fewest yards (188) since 2003 and scored their fewest points since 2008 in a 27-point defeat — didn’t truly reflect who they were as a team. And they insisted they’d show that Sunday night against the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
They kept that promise.
They more than kept that promise.
New Orleans’ 31-13 victory represented much more than the Saints’ 13th straight win in a primetime game at the Superdome and the Panthers’ first setback in nine contests. It meant much more than a 15th consecutive Saints win at home with coach Sean Payton on the sideline.
The win meant the Saints (10-3) are one game ahead of Carolina (9-4) in the NFC South. If New Orleans remains there and earns the No. 2 seed in the NFC after it visits St. Louis (5-8) next Sunday, heads to Carolina on Dec. 22 and hosts Tampa Bay (4-9) on Dec. 29, the earliest the Saints would need to travel in the postseason would be the NFC Championship Game.
The Saints, in their 47-year history, have yet to win as the road team in a playoff game.
“We’re right where our record says we are,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “And that’s the truth — we’re in a stretch where we’re fighting to stay on top of the division and play longer than the regular season.”
The Saints managed to right themselves against a Panthers defense that had been ranked the best in the league until Seattle (11-2) blew out New Orleans and all but locked up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the NFC last week.
Opposite a unit that came in to Sunday allowing the fewest points per game (13.1) and second-fewest yards per game (289.8) in the NFL, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was 30-of-42 for 313 yards and four touchdowns. New Orleans did not turn the ball over once to a defense that had picked off 16 passes and recovered 10 fumbles, which were second- and fifth-most in the NFL.
Brees threw three of his TDs in the last 13:40 of the second period, a quarter in which he also went 14-of-16 for 159 yards. He connected with wide receiver Marques Colston for TDs from 6 and 15 yards as well as tight end Jimmy Graham from 5 yards.
That flurry gashed open a 21-6 halftime lead for the Saints that Carolina had no prayer to overcome. What was so stunning about the deficit was that the Panthers defense had not allowed two TDs all season.
In the second half, Brees tossed an 8-yard TD to Graham (six grabs for 58 yards), and Garrett Hartley nailed a 19-yard field goal.
On the first of Colston’s scores, Brees became the first player in league history to throw for at least 30 TDs in six consecutive seasons. He had previously been the only player other than Brett Favre to throw for at least 30 TDs in five straight years.
Brees also finished the night with 4,107 yards on the year and became the NFL’s first player to ever throw for 4,000 or more yards in eight consecutive seasons. No other quarterback in Saints history even had one such season.
Only Brees could overshadow the night Colston had against the Panthers. Colston racked up a season-high 125 yards on nine receptions.
“At times, the way we utilize receivers doesn’t favor him ... with postseason accolades,” Payton said. “(But) he made some big plays tonight and got us going.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stood no chance against a Saints defense that, under the command of first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, came in giving up just 272.2 yards and 15.8 points per game in six previous outings at the Superdome this year.
Newton threw for 160 yards and a TD on 22-of-34 passing. He rushed for 48 of Carolina’s 128 yards on the ground.
Newton did not surpass the 255 total yards he had been averaging from scrimmage. He had been accounting for more than two TDs per game, and he failed to match that, too.
That was largely because the Saints sacked him five times, all on third down. A career-high three sacks came from outside linebacker Junior Galette, and two came from defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Galette’s sacks brought his totals for the season to nine, and Jordan is at 11.5. Both marks are career highs.
More importantly, though, four of the sacks caused three punts as well as a field goal by Graham Gano, who made kicks of 45 and 24 yards to put Carolina up 6-0 in the first quarter. Gano then missed a 49-yarder in the third period that would’ve cut into New Orleans’ 21-6 lead.
Newton followed up the fifth sack with a 17-yard TD strike to veteran receiver Steve Smith on fourth-and-goal.
But it was just a minor annoyance for the Saints. Galette set the tone for the night the first time he sacked Newton. Galette mimicked Newton’s notorious “Superman” celebration, in which the quarterback pretends to rip off his shirt in the same manner as the comic book hero.
Galette then pretended to throw the shirt down on the turf and stomp on it.