CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Saints' offence is potent enough with Drew Brees.
But if they continue to get big games on the ground from Mark Ingram, they may just leave the rest of the weak NFC South in the dust.
Brees threw for 297 yards and a touchdown and also ran for another score, and Ingram turned in another strong performance carrying 30 times for 100 yards and two TDs and New Orleans defeated the Carolina Panthers 28-10 Thursday night to take over first place in the NFC South.
Brees praised Ingram, who was coming off 172 yards rushing last week against Green Bay, for "carrying the load" and being the catalyst for the Saints' recent turnaround the past two weeks.
"Man, it's when our offence is at its best," Brees said of the Saints' running game.
The Saints (4-4) piled up 375 yards to snap a seven-game losing streak on the road that dated back to last November.
Brees said too much is made of the team's road woes, but he knows it wasn't going away until the Saints could find a way to win a big game on the road.
Brees finished 24 of 34 and tight end Jimmy Graham had seven catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
But it was Ingram who kept the Panthers off balance by picking up key first downs.
"The offensive line and tight end did a great job of hitting them, hitting them and hitting them," Ingram said. "I think they started to wear down and we were able to get some leaky yards and some big gains."
The struggling defending NFC South champion Panthers (3-5-1) have only won once in their past seven games after opening the season with back-to-back wins. They have 10 days before their next game to figure out how to turn things around.
"We know we are better — simple as that," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "It's nothing that someone has to say that hasn't already been said. It's a lot that hasn't been done yet."
Brees said he didn't let the team's road struggles creep into his mind, even after he threw an interception and fumbled in the first quarter.
He settled down late in the second, leading touchdown drives on four of the next five possessions.
The Saints' defence did its part, sacking Newton four times and forcing two turnovers. Newton, who spent much of the night under heavy duress playing behind an offensive line without three of its regular starters, was limited to 151 yards passing.
Carolina had opportunities to seize momentum after New Orleans' first two turnovers, but couldn't capitalize.
That's nothing new. The Panthers had three trips in the red zone last week against Seattle, but came away with only six points.
"It's hard when you don't take advantage of those opportunities," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
The Saints didn't have the same problem converting turnovers into points.
With the Panthers pinned back in their own end in a scoreless game, Junior Galette sacked Newton from behind and stripped the ball, allowing linebacker Curtis Lofton to recover at the Carolina 3. Ingram took advantage two plays later with a 3-yard run to give the Saints a 7-0 lead.
After forcing a three-and-out, Brees directed an 85-yard drive that ended when he slipped a 1-yard pass just past Melvin White to Graham on the right side with 3 seconds left in the half and the Saints were off and running while the Panthers headed to the locker room serenaded by a chorus of boos.
Brees scored on a quarterback sneak when he dove over the pile in the third quarter and Ingram sealed the win with his second TD run in the fourth quarter.
Brees said he had the option of calling a timeout before his fourth-and-goal run at the Carolina 1, but decided to take a shot and leaped over the pile with the ball extended to score.
"Drew felt with their linebackers' depth, he'd be able to get the half yard — and he did," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
One of the few highlights for the Panthers came from Newton.
He turned in one of the most athletic plays of the season when he scrambled out of the pocket, raced around the left end and took off from the 5-yard line and soared toward the goal line with the ball outstretched in his right hand for a touchdown, cutting the Saints lead to 14-7.
While Newton struggled, his receivers didn't give him much help.
Jerricho Cotchery couldn't haul in a catchable deep ball inside the 10 in the first quarter and Newton's on-target throw hit Brenton Bersin in the hands and popped straight to Corey White for an interception on the next drive. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin also dropped a pass in the end zone for the second straight week.
"We knew we had a chance to take control of the division," Ingram said. "We lost to them here at the end of last year so we felt like we left something here. We had to come back and take care of business."
NOTES: The Panthers got running back DeAngelo Williams back after missing four straight games with an ankle injury. He had eight carries for 20 yards. ... Carolina was without three starting offensive linemen — left tackle Byron Bell and guards Amini Silatolu and Trai Turner — due to injuries. ... The Saints had 27 first downs to Carolina's 15.
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