NEW ORLEANS - Drew Brees saw his face on giant Superdome video boards, then nodded and smiled as a jubilant crowd applauded the star quarterback's latest milestone and the meaningful way in which he hit it.
Brees passed for 313 yards and four touchdowns and New Orleans beat Carolina 31-13 on Sunday night to regain sole possession of first place in the NFC South and snap the Panthers' winning streak at eight games. In the process, Brees became the fifth quarterback to eclipse 50,000 career yards passing.
"Love this offence. Love what Sean Payton's put together," Brees said.
The Panthers' defence had not allowed more than two touchdowns in a game this season until the Saints (10-3) scored three in the second quarter alone, when Brees completed 14 of 16 passes for 159 yards.
The Saints also became the only team this season to score more than 24 points against Carolina (9-4), which entered the game No. 1 in scoring defence, allowing 13.1 points per game.
Brees' first two scoring strikes went to Marques Colston, who made nine catches for 125 yards. Jimmy Graham added two TD catches, his second making it 31-6 in the fourth quarter.
"We just had great balance," Brees said. "Marques came up with some huge catches, as did Jimmy. The line did a great job ... and the defence did a great job of getting us the ball."
New Orleans sacked Cam Newton five times and did not allow a touchdown until 5:15 remained. Junior Galette had three of New Orleans' sacks and Cameron Jordan two.
The Panthers had the ball for 11:30 of the first quarter, showing an early ability to move the ball in the face of an energized and loud Superdome crowd, but only got two field goals out of it after New Orleans came up with clutch third-down stops, including one on third-and-goal from the 6.
"I'm surprised and disappointed. We're a better team than we played today," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "They have the crowd behind them and they're on turf, not natural grass, which is a little bit different. It helps them as far as their speed and their timing. The things that they do here, they do very well. We'll see how things go when they come to Carolina."
Last Monday night, New Orleans went to Seattle looking to lead the race for the top playoff seeding in the NFC, only to fall 34-7 and drop into a tie with Carolina atop their division.
But the Saints looked like legitimate contenders again in their return home, where they are 7-0. They became the first team not to lose a turnover to the Panthers all season. Brees completed 30 of 42 passes in becoming the first quarterback to pass for at least 4,000 yards in eight straight season and pass for 30 TDs in six straight seasons.
New Orleans now owns a one-game lead over the Panthers with three games to go, but travels to Carolina in two weeks.
"Here we are, attempting to make another run at it," Brees said. "Obviously, some records and some other things, milestones along the way that you get to share, but I'm just glad to be on the journey with this group of guys.
Brees' best drive began with 2:01 left in the first half and New Orleans at its own 24. He immediately found Lance Moore for 21 yards, Colston for 19 yards and Darren Sproles for 20, setting up Graham's 5-yard TD catch to make it 21-6.
Newton was 22 of 34 passing for 160 yards, DeAngelo Williams returned from a quad contusion that sidelined him last week, gaining 52 yards on 13 carries.
"It was a great measuring stick for who we are and where we have to go," Newton said. "The best thing about this is we have an opportunity to face this team again in two weeks. Those guys just were better than us today. Are they better than us? No."
The Panthers struggled to move the ball on most drives after the first quarter, when Graham Gano hit field goals of 45 and 24 yards.
Brees' other TDs went for 8 yards to Graham and for 6 and 15 yards to Colston, who was hardly surprised by the QB's quick return to form.
"You've just got to see him throughout the week," Colston said. "The man works like I've never seen. He deserves every bit of success that he gets."
Notes: The other four QBs with 50,000 yards are: Brett Favre with 71,838, Peyton Manning with 64,009, Dan Marino with 61,361 and John Elway with 51,475. ... Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart left the game with a knee injury, the severity of which was not immediately disclosed.