CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The race to first place started out like a three-legged race, with one of the participants on each team wearing a shaven-down pegleg.

The gates burst open at Bank of America Stadium, and both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers tripped, stumbled and fumbled their way through much of the first half. But the Saints defense managed to keep Carolina off balance long enough for the offense to build a lead, and New Orleans marched away with a 28-10 victory Thursday night.

The win moved the Saints, a team that often could not get out of its own way during the early portion of its schedule, to .500 at 4-4 and into first place in the NFC South. It was New Orleans’ first road win after dropping its previous seven in the regular season.

It’s a drastic turnaround from where this team was heading into its open date.

“Tough times don’t last, and here we are, first place in the division,” pass-rusher Junior Galette said. “We can’t get complacent because we know how bad it feels to be number three, or whatever we were, before this day.”

It initially looked like this one was going to be full of the same old road woes. After driving into the red zone on the game’s first possession, Drew Brees threw a pass to Kenny Stills with cornerback Antoine Cason in coverage near the goal line that took an unfortunate bounce into the arms of defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.

Then, on the next drive, the Saints were once again moving the ball and continued to wrack up the big plays that were present on the opening series, but the drive stalled at near midfield when Charles Johnson bull rushed fullback Erik Lorig into Brees, causing a fumble.

The Saints then punted on their next three series.

In a typical game, such a start would yield doom and disaster for New Orleans. But on this night, with the division lead on the line, the Saints defense stepped up and smothered the Carolina offense long enough for the Saints offense to get started.

New Orleans made sure the turnovers did not hurt by forcing punts on Carolina’s first two drives, then ended a third series with a Corey White interception, his second in as many games. The Panthers’ next drive, which started at the 7-yard line following a Thomas Morstead punt, ended on its third play when Junior Galette rushed off the right edge and strip-sacked Cam Newton at the 4-yard line.

Carolina’s next drive never had a chance to get started when Cam Jordan beat right tackle Nate Chandler off the left edge and dropped Newton for a sack of 9 yards on second down. The Panthers eventually punted, and the Saints added their second touchdown with the help of a 32-yard pass interference penalty that put New Orleans at the 1-yard line, where Brees (24-of-34, 297 yards, one touchdown, one interception) punched it in.

After that, the offense got rolling, ripped off some big plays and saw Jimmy Graham (seven catches, 83 yards, one touchdown) return to health. It got a big performance from wide receiver Kenny Stills (five catches, 72 yards) and another 100-yard showing and a pair of touchdowns from running back Mark Ingram.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but the Saints are beginning to hit their stride as they enter the second half of the season. Earlier in the year, New Orleans would find ways to lose games and folded when things did not go right, which led to it losing three games by a combined six points.

That did not happen this week, and there are reasons for optimism moving forward. The defensive line, which struggled earlier in the year, is now consistently generating pressure. After recording more than 15 pressures and four sacks last week against the Green Bay Packers, the defense consistently got after Newton and recorded another four sacks (two by Galette, and one each for Jordan and Akiem Hicks).

“It was crucial. The lopsided advantage we had was against their offensive line,” Galette said. “Sean (Payton) emphasized the fact that we got to take advantage of it up front. ... We had probably the best push we had all year and it created a chance for me to get a little higher on the edges.”

The effective pass rush also paid dividends for the secondary, which held Newtown to 10-of-28 passing for 151 yards and one interception. If there’s one area to criticize the defense, it’s that Newton was allowed to run seven times for 43 yards, including a touchdown.

And when Newton managed to get the ball off, the defensive backs did their jobs and provided solid coverage. White, who has been maligned this season, especially for his struggles in the Week 7 loss at Detroit, minimized damage when Newton threw his direction, and Keenan Lewis locked down his side of the field.

In fact, Lewis locked down more than his side of the field. One of Carolina’s best chances came during the first half when safety Rafael Bush allowed receiver Jerricho Cotchery to pass by him and get down the field. Open down the middle, Newton spotted him and floated his pass a bit, which gave Lewis just enough time to come from the opposite side of the field and blow up the play.

After Galette’s second sack, he got up, stood near Newton and mocked the quarterback’s Superman celebration by pretending to rip open his shirt. While that might have been a bit over the top, it’s representative of how this team feels about itself right now.

It’s not longer a limping unit, trying to stay alive. After a slow start, they’ve found a way to thrive.

“We still got little plays here and there that great defenses don’t give up, but you think about it, we gave up some plays like that last year everyone once in a while too,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I think we’re back on track to be honest.”

“We know we’re a great defense,” Lewis said. “Now, from here on out, we got the confidence that we need, the leaders stepping up, people having fun. The first couple games when we were losing, we weren’t having fun. So the coaches told us to go out there and do what we do.”

Earlier in the year, Lewis probably doesn’t break up that pass, and the early mistakes would have sunken this team.

But these Saints, who are now a first-place team, have figured out a way to win games when things are less than ideal. That’s a big development.

And an even bigger one when you consider that they found out a way to prove it on the road.