Late drive fuels Saints’ victory

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After watching Drew Brees work his late-game magic so many times over the past few years, New Orleans Saints cornerback Leigh Torrence has a nickname for his team’s unquestioned leader: Picasso.

“Leigh said it best, ‘It’s like watching Picasso paint a masterpiece,’” strong safety Roman Harper said as he glanced over at Torrence in the locker room.

They witnessed another one Sunday as Brees and his offense put together a 13-play, 89-yard drive to score the eventual game-winning touchdown in a 30-27 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

It was the 19th game-winning drive of Brees’ career since coming to the Saints in 2006.

“He does that week in and week out,” Harper said of Brees’ performance. “Drew is a magnificent player, and I’m so glad we have him.”

Brees didn’t do it alone Sunday, but he certainly was a big part of it.

Tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Pierre Thomas, wide receiver Marques Colston and the offensive line all had their moments in the drive that resulted in Thomas’ 6-yard TD catch with 50 seconds to play.

The Panthers gave the Saints an opportunity when they punted the ball away after scoring touchdowns on back-to-back drives late in the third quarter and early in the fourth to take a 27-23 lead.

But when the Saints’ defense held and put the ball back in Brees’ hands with 7:06 to play, it was all over for the Panthers.

“I just remember looking at the clock and knowing that there was a little over seven minutes left,” Brees said. “I knew we were down by four and needed to go down and get a touchdown to win this thing.”

With that, he picked up his brush and went to work. Brees converted a third-and-3 pass for 12 yards to Graham to keep the drive alive and went back to him on the next play for a 14-yard pickup.

Two plays later, it was an 18-yard gain on a screen to Thomas, who made a one-handed grab when a Panthers defensive end grabbed his left hand, and there were two passes to Colston and one to Robert Meachem to set up the score. Brees was 8-of-9 for 80 yards on the drive that took 6:16 off the clock.

“It was crazy because Drew never wavers,” Graham said of the final drive. “From the first drive to the last drive of the game, he never changes. That’s a testament to what a great player he is.”

“That last drive, everybody was focused,” said Thomas, who slipped out of the backfield undetected to take the last pass of Brees’ day to the end zone. “We wanted to maintain possession, and go down there and score. That was it … the game was on the line.”

When Brees stepped into the huddle in the shadows of his goal post, it was all business — as usual.

“We were calm, cool and collected,” he said. “It was like, ‘Hey, we’ve been here many times before,’ which we have. It (the long drive) was nothing spectacular, just methodical.

“If we had gotten a 50-yard touchdown, we would have been OK with that. But we spread the ball around and were able to march down there and get the TD.”

Both Thomas and Brees said the game-winning play is designed for running back Darren Sproles to use his speed, but Brees said the Panthers might have known something was up if Sproles was in there.

It was nice, Brees said, to see Thomas back up to his old tricks on those two key pass plays after missing 10 games last season with an ankle injury.

“He’s a game, he’s a ballplayer,” said Brees. “He made a great catch on that screen play; he got knocked off balance a little bit but still was able to grip that ball with one hand and make that play. And the touchdown was great execution all the way around.”

It was, as Harper said, the final stroke on another masterpiece.