CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The New Orleans Saints’ biggest problem in three of their first four road games this season — all losses — was not finishing.
The problem Thursday night was starting.
Playing just four days after a blowout win against the Green Bay Packers, the Saints offense turned the ball over on its first two possessions with three consecutive punts following those miscues.
But thanks to a huge assist from their defense and their best drive of the night, the Saints broke through with two touchdowns in the final 2:38 of the first half that finally got them going in a 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
The energy from the end of the first half carried over after halftime with the Saints scoring two touchdowns on their first three second-half possessions to win going away en route to taking over first place in the NFC South.
“Coming into this game, we preached starting fast and finishing strong,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “I felt like we started fast as far as moving the football. We just had the two turnovers, and that’s on me. I can’t let that happen even if it’s just some bad fortune.”
It didn’t look good early when Brees was intercepted on a tipped pass to end a promising first drive and lost a fumble on their second possession while being sacked.
The Saints had 111 total yards at the end of the first quarter, but no points to show for it.
Three punts later, the Saints defense provided the spark the offense needed.
Outside linebacker Junior Galette sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and forced a fumble that inside linebacker Curtis Lofton fell on at the Carolina 4.
That takeaway, the second of the first half for the Saints, led two plays later to a 3-yard scoring run by Mark Ingram with 2:38 to play in the second quarter.
That was followed after a three-and-out stop by the defense by a touchdown drive that covered 85 yards in 1:46 — all of it coming after the Saints had used all of their timeouts.
After starting the drive with two incompletions, Brees completed 6 of 7 pass attempts for 60 yards — with a spike to stop the clock — and capped the drive with a 1-yard toss to Jimmy Graham with 3 seconds to play in the half.
“The biggest thing was overcoming early adversity, finding a way to battle back and get points,” said Brees, who completed 24 of 34 pass attempts for 297 yards with one touchdown. “The defense came up with a big turnover, and then, the two-minute drive was huge from a momentum standpoint.”
The biggest play on the drive was Brees’ 17-yard throw to wide receiver Kenny Stills on third-and-10 after the defense gave them the ball back.
A 20-yard screen pass to running back Travaris Cadet that moved the ball to the Panthers’ 26 was also big as was a 32-yard pass interference penalty in the end zone that set the Saints up at the 1 and led to Graham’s touchdown on the next play.
“We knew we could move the ball; we just had to remain confident,” Ingram said after rushing for 100 yards on 30 carries. “We had to just settle in, calm down, relax and we’d be able to move the ball.”
“The defense was playing well,” said Stills, who had five catches for 72 yards. “The offense was just going to have to keep pushing and pounding, and things would open up for us. They did.”
That was just a start.
After the Panthers opened the second half with a 10-yard scoring run by Newton to cut the deficit in half, Brees led his team on a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives on their next three possessions.
Brees got one score on a 1-yard dive after converting a couple of third-and-long situations to Brandin Cooks and Stills to keep the drive going.
After their lone punt of the second half, the Saints finished the Panthers off on Ingram’s 3-yard run with 5:30 to play while taking 7:27 off the clock.
“We finished. … We had to come out and win the second half,” Brees said. “The defense stepped up when it needed to, and offensively, when we needed to respond, we had to eat up time and get points … and we did.
“We know if we come and we execute, we’ll win a lot of football games. 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.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.