CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stylish, it was not.
The New Orleans Saints win with flair and panache at home, turning a brutal game into something often artistic and graceful.
But take the Saints on the road, and it’s all gritted teeth and clenched fists and, lately, a lot of heartache.
Seven straight times in the regular season, the Saints went on the road and, seven straight times, they lost since their last win last year at Atlanta.
But to borrow a Les Miles phrase, the Saints are coming.
You saw it in the way they swept past the Green Bay Packers at home Sunday night 44-23, taking the best shot of one of the NFL’s best teams and turning a serve-and-volley game into a rout. You saw it here Thursday night as the Saints moved into first place despite the schedule, despite the injuries, despite their own faults to post a still early yet crucial 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
It wasn’t a gem. It was one long, hard slog for the Saints, made harder by the fact that their tanks were nowhere near full when they came here on less rest than Madison Bumgarner in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night.
“It’s very difficult,” linebacker Junior Galette said. “My body is hurting right now like it’s never been. I’m going to get a massage every day for the next four days.”
Go ahead, Junior. You’ve earned it.
The Saints get a couple of extra days off before gearing up again to host San Francisco to start a — what’s this? — three-game homestand.
It shouldn’t seem like such a treat. The NFL’s schedule-makers have done the Saints no favors the first half of this season with five road games out of eight ,including this ridiculous two-step inside of one week: Sunday night game, then Thursday night road game.
“It’s crazy, it’s silly, it shouldn’t happen,” coach Sean Payton said. “To play a Sunday night and travel, I think it’s foolish.”
In another division, in another season, the Saints might have been sunk by the schedule and their 2-4 start.
But while the Saints were living and dying one frequent flyer mile at a time, the Panthers were unable to pull away.
Carolina was on a hard roll when the Saints came calling here last Dec. 22, in the second-to-last game of the regular season with the division title squarely on the line. The Panthers escaped with a 17-13 win and relegated New Orleans to a wild-card slot.
This time, Carolina was a feeble 3-4-1, so vulnerable the Panthers left themselves open to being toppled from first place by a 3-4 team.
“We felt like we left something here” last season, running back Mark Ingram said.
The Panthers offensive line was a patchwork mess, with former LSU guard and rookie Carolina starter Trai Turner watching from the press box with a knee injury.
The Saints took unapologetic advantage, pressuring the cracks until Carolina blew like that unmanned rocket Tuesday just off the launch pad in Virginia.
Except for a handful of highlights, the Carolina offense failed to launch.
There were a few nice moments here and there for Team Cam, but mostly its offense consisted of a lot of scattershot passing from Cam Newton and his magical gift for scrambling that we’ve marveled at since his Heisman Trophy-winning turn at Auburn in 2010.
But in the name of Steve Grogan, a running quarterback does not an adequate offense make. Not in the NFL. The Panthers needed a passing game to match, and Newton couldn’t deliver, completing just 10 of 28 attempts for 151 yards.
The Saints tried to help with a couple of early mistakes: a pinball interception thrown by Drew Brees on a red-zone pass intended for Kenny Stills and a Brees fumble near midfield on a sack.
To their credit, the improving Saints defense swatted away the Panthers’ clumsy threats with ease, then forced a much more critical mistake of their own. Galette’s strip and fumble recovery off Newton at the 4 set up the first of two 3-yard Ingram touchdown runs. Drew Brees then went into Hall of Famer mode, marching the Saints in from 85 yards out to go up 14-0 at the break on a zip-line 1-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 3 seconds and no time outs left to spare.
There was a whiff of concern for the Saints when Newton stretched for a score on a 10-yard keeper to make it 14-7 in the third quarter. But Brees led the Saints on another answering 80-yard drive to reach out and break the plane on fourth-and-goal at the 1 (crafty devil) and keep any legit Carolina hopes at, ahem, arm’s length.
“We just know if we come in and we execute, we’ll win a lot of football games,” Brees said. “We just hadn’t done that, especially on the road. Call it breaking the seal, whatever you want to call it.
“We call it a win.”
It hasn’t been easy. At times, it hasn’t been beautiful. But the Saints head into the second half of the season with a head of steam and a division lead after two tough wins in five fateful days.
No style points necessary. Just a few aspirin and a massage table.