Vargas: Saints' second quarter set the tone

3. NEW ORLEANS (10-3) Last week: 5th. They made a statement after that bad loss in Seattle. Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER Show caption
3. NEW ORLEANS (10-3) Last week: 5th. They made a statement after that bad loss in Seattle. Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER

Once already this season, the Saints had scored 21 points in a quarter — in the second period of a 49-17 win Nov. 10 over Dallas, whose defense was depleted by injuries and was allowing the most yards per game in the NFL (421.6).

There was nothing to indicate that they’d repeat the feat at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night against Carolina, who had won eight consecutive games and counted on a defense surrendering the league’s second-fewest yards and fewest points per outing.

But that’s exactly what the Saints (10-3) did in the second quarter of their 31-13 win over Carolina (9-4). And New Orleans can credit that sole quarter for any longevity it might enjoy this postseason.

The Saints had scored only a total of 24 points in the two games they’d played before facing Carolina. They had scrounged up just 188 yards of offense in a 34-7 loss six days earlier at Seattle.

Then, down 6-0, the Saints began their second quarter against Carolina. The Panthers ran 11 plays on their three possessions before it was over — but they gained just 2.8 yards per play, punting twice and kneeling once to end the half.

For their part, the Saints ran 22 plays for 180 yards — an astounding 8.2 yards per offensive snap. Sixteen of those plays were passes — Drew Brees completed 14 of them for 159 yards and three touchdowns against a defense that hadn’t given up more than two touchdowns in a game all season.

One incompletion was an 18-yard pass into the end zone to Lance Moore that the Panthers’ Mike Mitchell broke up on the first play of the quarter. Brees shook that off and hit Marques Colston for a 6-yard touchdown three plays later.

The other incompletion was a short pass in front of Jimmy Graham that the tight end couldn’t corral with one hand. But no matter — Brees soon hit Colston from 15 yards out for a second touchdown.

The final touchdown drive showed just how locked-in the Saints were this quarter. Darren Sproles returned a Carolina punt 15 yards to New Orleans’ 49, but backup running back Khiry Robinson was flagged for holding, pushing the Saints back to their 24 with 2:01 left in the half.

Brees promptly completed passes that gained 21, 19 and 20 yards. It took 11 seconds of elapsed time for the Saints to move from their 24 to Carolina’s 16.

Graham eventually caught a 5-yard touchdown throw with 22 seconds left in the half to cap off the flurry.

Saints center Brian de la Puente on Monday suggested that the third touchdown drive of the second quarter played out pretty much as scripted.

“When you get opportunities when the defense is playing well, and you get the ball back in two-minute situations to get some points, you definitely want to do that,” he said. “Our preparation throughout the week — we put ourselves in those situations expecting to be in them, so when the opportunity does come, we are ready for them.”

Coach Sean Payton on Sunday said: “I thought the score late in the second quarter was important for us. We threw it, obviously, a lot more than we ran the football, and I thought our protection was outstanding.”

Indeed. Carolina never got back into the fight, and the Panthers finished the night one game behind the Saints in the NFC South with three weeks left to play.

If the Saints stay atop their division after visiting St. Louis (5-8) next Sunday, dropping in on Carolina on Dec. 22 and hosting Tampa Bay (4-9) on Dec. 29, it’s a very strong possibility that they would wrap up the No. 2 seed in the NFC and wouldn’t need to travel in the playoffs until the conference championship game.

The Saints, in their 47-year history, have never won as the road team in a divisional, wild-card or conference championship game.

Furthermore, this year at least, the Saints are a much more ordinary outfit when they’re away. At the Superdome, where the Saints are 7-0, the defense holds opponents to 15.4 points and 267.4 yards per game; on the road, where New Orleans is 3-3, those numbers are 22.5 points and 367.5 yards per game.

The offense is scoring just under 33 points and racking up 440 yards per game at the Superdome. Those figures are just under 19 points and 341 yards per game on the road.