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New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) celebrates a touchdown with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) against the Carolina Panthers in an NFL football game in the Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016.

Drew Brees had a feeling the Carolina Panthers would be able to bounce back Sunday, even after the Saints hit them with everything they had at the start. 

A healthy Cam Newton was always going to hit back with everything he had to offer. 

Brees, bloodied by a hit in the fourth quarter, kept answering Newton and ended up with the last laugh, setting up Wil Lutz for a game-winning field goal in a 41-38 victory that cements the Saints' ability to emerge victorious from the kinds of games they lost to start the season.

"These are defining ones, and these are ones that you can draw from as the season goes along and really get a lot of strength from," Brees said. "It also gives you great confidence and poise for when those situations arise in the future, because you've been there before."

Brees, who has been there plenty of times in his illustrious career, led the way by riddling a young, injury-depleted Carolina secondary from start to finish in a game that both teams had to have to stay alive in the NFC South race.

New Orleans (2-3) struck first with repeated bolts of lightning from Brees' right arm. Brees opened the game with three consecutive touchdown drives, opening up a 21-0 lead on a Coby Fleener 2-yard touchdown run, an 87-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks and a 9-yard touchdown toss to Michael Thomas.

Battered and bruised throughout the season, Carolina (1-5) is a shell of the team that cruised to a Super Bowl appearance last season, and Newton was making his first start since suffering a concussion against Atlanta two weeks ago.

None of those problems convinced the Saints that the Panthers would fold in the face of an early onslaught.

"We knew this was going to be an all-day sucker, even when we went up 21-0," Brees said. "We know what they are capable of on that side of the ball."

Newton, who did not do any of the designed runs that have become a hallmark of his game, started off slowly, in part due to a Saints pass rush that sacked him twice, hit him 13 times and picked him off on Sterling Moore's interception in the second quarter.

"We all had an eye on him," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "We were all really focused on keeping him contained in the pocket."

But Newton started making plays in the face of all the pressure. Newton, who has grown into a devastating passer over the past couple of seasons, erupted with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess late in the first half and kept on rolling. 

Aided by three pass interference calls that gave the Panthers first-and-goal at the 2-yard line, Newton slowly and steadily marched back against the Saints, completing 27 of 47 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns.

After a Brees interception in the third quarter offered him an opportunity, Carolina cut the gap to 31-30 on Jonathan Stewart's second touchdown run after the point-after try failed.

But Brees has been in plenty of back-and-forth games, and he kept fending off Newton's advance with the kind of record-breaking performance that has become familiar to Saints fans over the years.

Brees finished 34-of-49 for 465 yards — the 15th time he has broken the 400-yard mark in his career, an NFL record — and four touchdowns, including an 8-yard TD pass to Josh Hill in the fourth quarter despite taking a blow to the face from Carolina defensive tackle Kawann Short that left Brees bleeding from the lip.

"It wasn't that hard, but it just looked like he straight punched me in the mouth," Brees said. "That's what it felt like, and that's what it looked like on the JumboTron. But I'll take the 15 yards every time, and we got the touchdown anyway."

Newton responded again, marching the length of the field in six plays, using his legs to pick up the final 2 yards and tying the score on a two-point pass to Funchess.

But the Saints offense didn't blink, aided by a series of close games early this season that have tested the team's mettle.

"You get a little battle-tested," coach Sean Payton said. "You find out about guys."

Guys like Lutz, who missed a 53-yarder earlier in the game. 

Working quickly and surgically cutting through the defense, Brees, who became the sixth quarterback to pass for more than 50,000 yards with one team, set the rookie up for a 52-yard attempt, and this time he nailed it for the game-winner.

"You have to have a short memory," Lutz said. "You forget about the (miss) and go after the next one."

And the Saints keep marching, even when things get tight.


Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.