Carolina's franchise-record eight-game winning streak came crashing down under the New Orleans Saints' home dominance.
In a matchup of NFC South co-leaders, the Panthers played well for a quarter and then fell apart as the Saints improved to 7-0 in the Superdome, winning 31-13 on Sunday night to regain control of the division.
Everything that had gone well for Carolina in the last two months disappeared. Quarterback Cam Newton was sacked five times and produced zero touchdowns until late in the fourth quarter, when the game was out of reach. The Panthers allowed three touchdowns in the second quarter after not giving up more than two in any game this season.
"I'm surprised and disappointed," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "We're a better team than we played today."
Even the Panthers' good start led to frustration. They converted three consecutive third downs on the opening possession, but Newton was sacked on third-and-4 from the New Orleans 20, forcing them to settle for Graham Gano's 45-yard field goal.
After forcing a three-and-out on the Saints' first series, Carolina drove to the New Orleans 6 but had to kick another field goal.
"You get down in the red zone, you have to score touchdowns," Rivera said. "You can't beat a good team, especially a team that is as explosive as these guys are and expect to win with field goals."
The Saints responded with touchdowns, carving up a Carolina defense that had allowed the fewest points in the league coming in. Drew Brees finished with 313 yards and four TDs passing while becoming the fifth QB in NFL history to surpass 50,000 career yards through the air.
New Orleans scored on consecutive drives of 80, 86 and 76 yards in the second quarter. Brees finished off each with a touchdown toss, hitting wide receiver Marques Colston for the first two and finding tight end Jimmy Graham for the third.
"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 defense did a great job of getting us the ball."
Brees went 6 for 6 for 76 yards New Orleans' third scoring drive, which started at the New Orleans 24 with 2:01 left and ended with Graham beating linebacker Luke Kuechly easily for a 5-yard scoring reception.
The Panthers never recovered. Newton went 22 of 34 for only 160 yards, his lowest passing total since a season-opening 12-7 loss to Seattle, and was under pressure all night.
"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 (at Carolina). Those guys just were better than us today. Are they better than us? No."
The Saints clearly were better in the dome. All five of their sacks came on third down, forcing the opening-drive field goal and four punts.
"It's tough," Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "Their home-field advantage is big. We couldn't her anything in the huddle. It was hard to communicate at the line."
Carolina's kickers struggled, too. Gano was wide right on a 49-yard field goal that could have cut the deficit to 21-9 early in the third quarter. Brad Nortman had a punt bounce backwards and get downed after traveling 28 yards.
On this night, nothing worked. New Orleans limited Newton to a long completion of 17 yards and outgained Carolina 373-239. The Panthers allowed 31 points, a season high, as Brees completed 30 of 42 for 313 yards and four touchdowns.
"Hands down, we didn't want it today as much as they did," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "I hate losing. It hurts. I'm going to be up tonight figuring out what I didn't do."
NOTES: Carolina failed to force a turnover for the first time this year. . Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart left the game with a knee injury and River did not disclose the severity of it afterward. . Carolina had allowed an NFL-low nine scoring tosses entering the game. ... Brees also became the first NFL quarterback to pass for at least 4,000 yards in eight straight seasons and 30 TDs in six straight.