New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown on fourth down against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD

A Saints team that has been known mostly for finesse outside the city of New Orleans took control of the NFC South by force Sunday.

For the past half a decade, the Carolina Panthers have been the NFC South's bruiser, a team built on running teams into the ground and beating them up on defense in a division otherwise known for the aerial attacks in New Orleans and Atlanta.

Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara pounded those Panthers into submission on Sunday. Offered an opportunity to regain control of the NFC South on Sunday, New Orleans rode its brilliant pair of running backs to a dominant 31-21 win over Carolina in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"Any team that's been worth anything in the history of football has had a great run game, has had one, or two backs, even three backs," Ingram said.

"Any team that's worth its salt has had a great running game."

New Orleans (9-3) holds a one-game lead over the Panthers — and the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a season sweep of Carolina — and Atlanta's 14-9 loss to Minnesota on Sunday means the Saints head into Thursday night's showdown against the Falcons with a two-game lead on their hated rival.

"We have an extremely tough division," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We have three teams that are vying for that playoff spot, and certainly a playoff opportunity. ... Four of these last five games are divisional games, so this is where our best football needs to be played."

Sunday's game was crucial.

A lackluster loss to Los Angeles last week had snapped the Saints' eight-game winning streak, and unlike a few of the NFC's other contenders, the NFC South had been able to keep pace.

Facing Carolina, a team that had the NFL's No. 3 rushing defense, represented a chance for the Saints to reassert their identity.

"They have been getting the best of us, especially in big games," Ingram said. "We put an emphasis that we were going to be the bullies. We were going to hit them in the mouth."

Coach Sean Payton made sure the Saints threw a haymaker on the opening series.

New Orleans got the ball first, but a promising drive stalled inside the 5-yard line, leaving the Saints with fourth-and-goal from the 2. A lot of coaches would kick the field goal in that situation in a big game, afraid to walk away without points.

Payton chose to go for it.

"Just a gut feeling," Payton said. "It's just the timing, where we were in the game, and I felt like we had a good play as well. I felt confident in the play we had."

And in the running back who'd be getting the ball.

Kamara has been electric all season long, forcing his way into contention for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. On the day's first crucial play, the Saints pitched it to Kamara on the outside, allowing him to get out in space.

Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson delivered a huge blow, but Kamara kept driving into the end zone for the score and a 7-0 lead.

"Savage," Ingram said. "Cold-blooded."

Ingram made the next big play. After the Panthers answered Kamara's touchdown with a scoring drive of their own, the defenses took over for the rest of the first quarter, setting a physical tone.

At least until Ingram ripped off a 72-yard run, weaving and dodging his way past Carolina safety Mike Adams in the process, and scored a play later on a 3-yard plunge up the middle.

"I tried to hit the hole as fast as I could and hit the end zone," Ingram said. "They were sleeping on my speed, so I have to put the burners on them every now and then."

New Orleans briefly had a chance to put the game away early after Carolina punter Michael Palardy fumbled a punt, allowing the Saints to break out to a 21-7 lead, but New Orleans coughed that advantage up when Josh Hill fumbled, allowing the Panthers to cut the lead to 21-14 heading into the half.

Ingram and Kamara made sure the Saints took control again on their first series of the second half. First, Ingram took a short pass from Brees on third down and drove his way past the first-down marker to keep the drive going, and Kamara made it count with a brilliant 20-yard touchdown run that gave New Orleans a commanding 28-14 lead.

Few teams can give two backs enough touches to be productive, but Ingram finished with 14 carries for 85 yards and six catches for 37 yards, and Kamara added 60 yards on nine carries and 66 yards on five receptions.

According to Kamara and Ingram, none of it is surprising.

"I don't like the 'surprise' word," Kamara said. "We're being put in a great position to make plays and produce."

New Orleans now faces a tough turnaround, heading on the road to face Atlanta on a Thursday night.

"It's another division game, and it's big for us," Ingram said. "Short weeks are tough, but you've got to be able to get up for a division game. We've got to keep winning."

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.