Saints offense gets back on track in rout of Panthers

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKERSaints wide receiver Marques Colston, center, celebrates his first-quarter touchdown with quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Kenny Stills during Sunday's game. Show caption
Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKERSaints wide receiver Marques Colston, center, celebrates his first-quarter touchdown with quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Kenny Stills during Sunday's game.

“He’s just a special guy. I call him the surgeon.” Jimmy Graham, Saints tight end, on quarterback Drew Brees

The Carolina Panthers could have used a 12th man on defense Sunday night against quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

Six days after laboring to get 188 yards in a blowout loss at Seattle, the Saints amassed 373 yards and cruised to a 31-13 victory against the Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to grab a one-game lead in the NFC South.

The Saints (10-3) gained 187 yards alone in the second quarter when they overcame a 6-0 deficit with three scoring passes from Brees — two to wide receiver Marques Colston and one to tight end Jimmy Graham.

Carolina (9-4) never recovered and now eyes the rematch Dec. 22 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

“Playing on a short week with the division championship kind of riding in the balance, it was important for us to bounce back with a win against a team that was as hot as Carolina,’’ Brees said.

“Now we’ve got to go to St. Louis next week and keep it going.’’

Brees completed 30 of 42 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns for a 124.4 passer rating, six days after enduring one of the worst games of his 13-year NFL career in a 34-7 loss to the Seahawks. Brees threw for a paltry 147 yards on 23 completions and one touchdown, finishing with a 77.4 rating.

Early in the fourth quarter against Carolina, Brees became the fifth quarterback in NFL history to eclipse the 50,000-yard mark, trailing only Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway.

It came on a 22-yard pass to Graham with 10:42 remaining. Brees now has 50,026 yards.

“We were kidding (Brees) in the locker room,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Usually, when a player throws for 50,000 yards, there are fireworks and you stop the game and acknowledge the moment, and it was kind of like just a nod and ‘attaboy.’

“But it’s a pretty unique feat when you look at the history of our league. To be in that class with the four other guys really speaks to his consistency, his availability and durability and his skill set. Obviously, we’re happy for him and proud of him.’’

Buoyed by a sellout crowd of 73,089 intent to set a noise record at an indoor stadium, the Saints snapped the Panthers’ franchise-best eight-game winning streak and remained unbeaten at home this season (7-0).

It marked the Saints 15th consecutive home win with Payton on the sideline dating to the 2010 season.

“I’m very, very lucky to have a quarterback like (Brees),’’ said Graham, who finished with six catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns. “He’s taught me everything I know, and he trusts me in situations that most quarterbacks wouldn’t. He’s just a special guy. I call him the surgeon.’’

The Panthers’ second-ranked defense picked up Sunday where the No. 1-ranked Seattle defense left off last Monday night at CenturyLink Field, home to the Seahawks’ infamous 12th Man.

The Panthers limited the Saints to 67 yards on eight plays in the opening quarter and led 6-0 in Graham Gano’s 45- and 24-yard field goals. Carolina dominated time of possession — 11:30 to 3:30 — in the first 15 minutes.

But the Saints offense got its groove on in the second quarter, erupting for 21 points on Brees’ scoring passes of 6 and 15 yards to Colston and 5 yards to Graham.

Colston caught nine passes for 125 yards (both season highs) and two scores, equaling his touchdown output through the first 12 games. Brees and Graham combined on an 8-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter, their 14th collaboration this season.

The Panthers had not allowed more than 24 points in any game this season.

“The milestone was great,’’ Brees said. “I’m glad to be on the journey with this group of guys. We kind of high-fived in the locker room and hugged, but we’ll reflect on all that after the season.’’