CHARLOTTE, N.C.— Michael Thomas didn’t want to get on a plane to London with a loss hanging over his head.

Being trapped inside an airplane after another disappointing result sounded like the formula for a long ride in a chamber of misery. Thomas was determined to stop that from happening.

So were all of his Saints teammates.

“Ultimately, me, personally, I wasn’t trying to fly to London with 0-3,” Thomas said. “There was no way. That’s all that was on my mind the whole game.”

Whatever the source of motivation, this team finally looked like the one that has some things figured out during Sunday’s 34-13 win over the Carolina Panthers. It was a unit with promise and ability. The young defense finally played its part. The offense performed like one that’s coached by Sean Payton and led by Drew Brees.

None of those things were happening the first two weeks, and the last point was the most surprising aspect of the early losses. The offense didn’t look like itself in those games. The timing was off. The Saints couldn’t score in the red zone the first week, and then it couldn’t move the ball on third down in Week 2 against the Patriots.

On Sunday, in the last game New Orleans will play without wide receiver Willie Snead, who will return next week from a three-game suspension, the offense finally clicked and pieced together its most efficient performance of the year.

The stats don’t read like a vintage Payton-and-Brees performance. The Saints have scored 30 more points in 78 games since 2006. The 220 yards Brees passed for and the 362 total yards the offense gained both ranked as the sixth-lowest marks in those games. And yet, it never felt like the offense was posting thin numbers —the benefit of having a good defensive performance 

Maybe it was because the offense had a plan that appeared to exploit all the weaknesses in what was the NFL’s top-ranked defense entering Sunday. It started off early with Thomas, whose performance ended up being one of the big keys to the passing offense.

The second-year wide receiver did most of his damage on the opening series, and his first two catches came as standard fare — lined up on the outside against a cornerback. Then the Saints started getting creative. On Thomas’ third catch, he started out as the outside receiver until running back Alvin Kamara motioned out of the backfield, which caused the cornerback to kick outside to cover Kamara, leaving Thomas on linebacker Thomas Davis. The wide receiver easily beat the linebacker for a gain of 11.

“We knew that motion played with them a little bit, and we wanted to take advantage of that, have something else to create mismatches,” Kamara said.

“Sean Payton’s been playing these guys for 11 years now,” wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. “He knows what will get them confused and what happens to them and when you do a lot of different motions. It helped us out in our game plan, and that was one of our key points.”

The Saints ran the same action three plays later, and, again, the cornerback followed Kamara outside leaving Thomas against a linebacker and safety in space. He turned a curl into a quick gain of 12 yards. Thomas finally capped the drive by beating a cornerback on a corner route for a touchdown.

By the end of the drive, Thomas had five catches for 50 yards. He finished with seven catches for 87 yards. But the way he set the tone early paid dividends the rest of the game.

“It was big. We got a matchup on a linebacker a couple of times,” Payton said. “They have some off-ball coverages. He’s just one of those guys that I think is really good after the ball is in his hands.”

Much like the Patriots last week, the Panthers made some adjustments and appeared intent on taking Thomas away by throwing double coverages at him. All that did was open things up for other players.

One example on this came when Carolina threw two defenders at Thomas on a wheel route, which left Ginn in man-to-man coverage with cornerback James Bradberry. Ginn won the matchup for a 40-yard touchdown.

Between his seven receptions and the one by Ginn, Thomas was involved with generating at least 127 of the offense’s passing yards, and it all started with racking up all those yards on the opening drive.

A similar thing happened last week against the Patriots when Thomas was doubled in the end zone, which left Brandon Coleman in one-on-one coverage for an easy touchdown on the other side of the field. Whether it’s him or someone else, Thomas is fine with creating opportunities no matter how they come.

“They started doubling me, putting a safety over the top, droppers, stuff like that,” Thomas said. “When that happens, then other guys make big plays.”

It was an encouraging performance. The Saints finally showed the complementary style of play they want to showcase by getting the running game and defense going, and the offense looked to be in sync save for a play that broke down between Kamara and Brees, a misread of Carolina's defense resulting in an off-target throw. The rookie classified it as “growing pains.”

You can stomach a few of those when things are working, and it worked Sunday. The Saints believe the progress is real.

“The first two weeks are always tough,” Ginn said. “(Weeks) three and four, you always see teams get better. When it’s diehard, and the game is on the line like it was, and the season on the line a little bit, you see what kind of guys are in the room.”

That sounds like a comforting thought to ponder on a long plane ride.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​