The New Orleans Saints had a few things they needed to prove in their Sunday night matchup against the Carolina Panthers. It was incumbent upon Sean Payton's team to establish that Monday's 34-7 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle was a freak occurrence. The Saints had to gain some separation from a Panthers team that had won eight straight games, and was tied with New Orleans for the NFC South's best record (and the NFC's second-best record) at 9-3. And Rob Ryan's defense wanted to show that despite being riddled by Russell Wilson in the air and on the ground, his charges knew how to handle dual-threat quarterbacks.
In their 31-13 win over the Panthers at the Superdome, it was a hearty "Mission accomplished" on all counts. Quarterback Drew Brees came back from his 147-yard debacle in the Pacific Northwest and rebounded to the tune of 30 completions in 42 attempts for 313 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against one of the NFL's best defenses. Brees also became the fastest quarterback ever to reach the 50,000 yard mark (in 183 games to Peyton Manning's 191), and set a league record by exceeding 30 touchdown passes for his sixth straight season.
"We knew the challenge, especially on a short week," Brees told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game. "Playing a great divisional opponent in the Carolina Panthers -- they'd won eight in a row, so they were rolling. But he wanted to hit our stride and get our swagger back, and no better way than to come into the dome and do that. All three phases played exceptionally well tonight, and we got a team win."
Carolina's defense had allowed two first-half touchdowns during the entire season, but the Saints put up three in the second quarter alone. It was a bit of a slow start, as Carolina played its usual game of keep-away in the first quarter, possessing the ball for 11:30 to the Saints' 3:30. But the Panthers sputtered in the red zone and managed just two field goals in all that time, and that won't generally get it done against Brees when his offense is humming.
"We just had great balance, and a lot of guys made plays," Brees concluded. "Marques [Colston] had huge catches, as did Jimmy [Graham]. We mixed-and-matched the personnel groups and what we were doing, and the defense did a great job of giving us the ball and giving us opportunities."
Of that, there could be no doubt. Brees attempted eight passes of 20 yards or more against Seattle and completed none; this time, there were no such issues. His receivers grabbed yards after catch on short passes, but Brees was also pinpoint on the longer stuff when the need arose. Carolina took a cue from Seattle and tried to force Brees to throw deep, failing to realize that the future Hall-of-Famer rarely makes the same mistake twice. According to ESPN's Stats & Info, the same Carolina defense that had allowed just five passing touchdowns and had taken away 13 picks with four or fewer pass rushers through the season allowed three touchdown passes from Brees under those same circumstances.
Basically, the Panthers walked into a buzzsaw, and they had no answer.
"I love this offense," Brees said. "I love what Sean Payton has put together. I love the group of guys I get a chance to play with ... I'm just blessed to be able to play in a city like this, for a team like the Saints, and for a coach like Sean Payton."
As for Rob Ryan's defense, the Panthers team that outscored its opponents 211-99 during its eight-game winning streak came back to earth with a resounding thud. Cam Newton was 22 of 34 for just 160 yards and a garbage-time touchdown pass to Steve Smith late in the fourth quarter. His most explosive play was a 19-yard run early in the first quarter, and after that, New Orleans' defense shut Newton and his team down in what was a very satisfying performance. The Panthers outgained the Saints 128-69 on the ground, but that didn't matter because Brees was airing it out so effectively against Ron Rivera's defense. Carolina is built to play in more of an old-school fashion; the Panthers seemed to prove in this game that they are not so equipped to engage in catch-up when necessary.
"It stinks," Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "It's a good reminder [that] if you don't play well, you get your butt kicked ... The sky isn't falling. We just got used to winning eight weeks in a row. We wanted to win. We prepared well. We just didn't play well."
For the Saints, it all started with the pass rush. Ryan kept his edge rushers on gap assignments against the threat of Newton's array of read-option plays, requiring Newton to run inside for the most part when he needed to make gains. And when the pocket started to break down, pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Gallette were there to greet him -- Gallette racked up three sacks on the night, and Jordan added two of his own. Newton was hit seven times and pressured ceaselessly when he wasn't running.
In addition, the Saints' secondary which looked so vulnerable against Seattle seemed so much stronger against Carolina, literally and figuratively -- it managed to avoid the run defense mistakes that sometimes come with man coverage, and rookie safety Kenny Vacarro was ready with serious hits for anybody who came into his area.
After their most balanced performance of the season, the 10-3 Saints are in the catbird seat. The two-game stretch against the Panthers over three weeks seems far less daunting -- even if New Orleans' road inefficiencies continue and it loses to Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 22, it will still have the division lead with a split, and could still snag the NFC's No. 2 seed with wins over the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We're in a stretch here where we're fighting to stay on top of the division and give ourselves the best chance possible to play longer than the regular season," Payton said. "We just look at our next opponent and try to put our best plan together. But our guys ... I thought they played hard, and I was pleased with that. We're at that point in the season where we rely on our leadership -- the veteran players understand how important these games are. " Starting with their quarterback, who seemed more than eager to define the scene single-handedly.