NEW ORLEANS — Rarely since 2006 have those inside the Saints facility been willing to express the enormity of a game.
But this week, as the buildup of New Orleans’ home game against Carolina continued, both Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees openly admitted to as much.
Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the Panthers with the driver’s seat in the NFC South on the line is almost as big as it gets.
It coaxed the Saints to bring in the Guinness Records crew. It cajoled the franchise to put white towels on every seat to lift the fans into a frenzy. And it enticed the club to bring in the Ying-Yang Twins, purveyors of that now classic scoring song Crunk.
And in one 15-minute stretch, the Saints answered those questioning their resolve and planted themselves in the driver’s seat for the division title and the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
Drew Brees threw three second-quarter touchdown passes, the defense held a confident Panthers offense to nearly 100 less than their season average and the Saints got back on the right side of the win-loss column with a 31-13 thrashing of the Panthers.
Brees finished the game 30 of 42 for 313 yards and four scores, more than doubling his output against the Seahawks in the 27-point loss a week ago.
Marques Colston was the beneficiary of a Panthers secondary unused to covering so many weapons, catching nine passes for 125 yards and two scores. And when Brees wasn’t spotting Colston, he was finding Graham, who caught six passes for 58 yards and two scores.
New Orleans gained more than 100 more than Carolina (9-4) had averaged allowing this season and the 31 points scored were the most the NFL’s top unit in points given up had allowed all season.
Yet, it wasn’t just the offense doing damage. The defense held the Panthers to nearly 100 fewer than their season average. After allowing Carolina to start the game 4 of 5 on third down, the Saints held them to less than 27 percent the rest of the game.
Cam Newton, Carolina’s big, athletic read-option quarterback went 22 of 34 for 160 yards, but threw just one touchdown pass.
The Panthers converted their initial three third downs, but Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan converged on Cam Newton on third-and-four at the New Orleans 20 to stop Carolina’s game-opening drive. Graham Gano’s 45-yard field goal put New Orleans in an early 3-0 hole.
The defense again bent but didn’t break after the offense went three-and-out on the Saints’ first series. Carolina drove to the Saints’ 6, but Newton’s pass fell incomplete on third-and-goal and Gano’s second field goal put New Orleans behind 6-0 with just 1 minute, 56 seconds to go in the opening quarter.
New Orleans found its rhythm on its second possession thanks to a critical third-and-nine conversion from Brees to Colston. That led eventually to a Brees six-yard touchdown pass to Colston and New Orleans found itself holding a 7-6 lead despite a more than six-minute deficit in time of possession at the time.
The Saints extended their lead to 14-6 on their next possession when Brees once again hit Colston, this time for a 15-yard touchdown. New Orleans faced just one third down on the drive, a short-yardage play converted by Khiry Robinson.
Brees’ stellar second quarter continued thanks to good defense and good use of the clock. Jordan’s sack of Newton on third down with 2:13 gave the Saints the chance for one more second-quarter possession. Brees responded with a seven-play, 76-yard drive that culminated with a five-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham.
In the second quarter alone, Brees went 14 of 16 for 159 yards and three touchdowns, giving the Saints a 21-6 halftime lead.
New Orleans pushed the lead to 24-6 on a Garrett Hartley 19-yard field goal, but it could have been more. After Colston was ruled down at the one when he knee touched before the ball cross the goal line, New Orleans couldn’t punch the ball in.
The Saints closed out any hope by Carolina of coming back by pouncing once more through the air, an eight-yard touchdown pass to Graham finishing off a 58-yard drive that pushed New Orleans’ lead to 31-6.
Carolina made it a three-score game on Newton’s 17-yard pass to Steve Smith on fourth-and-17 late in the fourth quarter, but it was too late for the Panthers to make a legitimate push.