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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Drew Brees leapt forward and stretched the ball over the goal line on a fourth-down sneak to give the New Orleans Saints a 21-7 lead over the Carolina Panthers after the third quarter of Thursday night's game.
Brees' score late in the third capped a 14-play drive that took more than six minutes while grabbing back momentum after Cam Newton directed a scoring drive that got Carolina back in it after trailing 14-0 at halftime.
Mark Ingram's 12-yard run pushed the Saints inside the Carolina 5, though the Panthers stuffed Ingram twice and then Brees couldn't connect with Josh Hill near the back of the end zone to bring up fourth down.
But Brees kept the ball at the 1 and extended the ball over the defensive line despite taking a hit with 4:04 left.
Ingram and Jimmy Graham each scored late in the second quarter to get the Saints going after a mistake-filled opening quarter featuring two turnovers by Brees.
Ingram's 3-yard run got New Orleans on the board for a score after a fumble by Newton deep in Carolina's end, then Brees connected with Graham on a 1-yard pass with 3 seconds left in the half for the 14-0 lead in a game to determine the NFC South lead.
Newton was off-target early before directing a scoring drive coming out of the break to get Carolina back in it. He rolled to the left side to escape the blitz, then beat Tyrunn Walker to the goal line and extended the ball just inside the left pylon on his dive for Carolina's first score.
There wasn't much to feel good about early for the Panthers, with home fans booing the team as it headed to the locker room at halftime.
Newton threw for 47 yards on 5-for-15 passing and had a costly fumble in the first half, with Junior Galette knocking it loose from behind near the goal line as Newton tried to scramble to buy time on third down late in the half. The Saints recovered at the Carolina 4 to set up Ingram's score with 2:38 left.
Then, after forcing a three-and-out, Brees directed an 85-yard drive that ended with his scoring toss to Graham.
While Newton struggled, his receivers didn't give him much help, either.
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.
Brees had the Saints gaining chunks of yards on both of their first two drives only to see the Panthers' defense get a takeaway.
New Orleans pushed inside the Carolina 15-yard line on the game-opening drive before Brees' pass for Kenny Stills was deflected to Panthers defensive lineman Dwan Edwards for the interception.
Then, after the Saints forced a punt, Brees quickly pushed the Saints to midfield only to have Carolina's Charles Johnson push fullback Erik Lorig into him and knock the ball loose as he looked downfield for a fumble.
Those turnovers stopped early momentum for an offense that was coming off a big performance against Green Bay and had gained at least 18 yards on five different plays on the first two drives.
The Panthers had won just one of their past six games coming in along with a tie at Cincinnati in Week 6, including falling at home last week to Seattle on a late touchdown.
The Saints, meanwhile, were 0-4 on the road this season.
The Panthers got running back DeAngelo Williams back for this one after missing four straight games with an ankle injury. He got the first carry for Carolina and split time with Jonathan Stewart in the backfield.
Carolina was without three starting offensive linemen — left tackle Byron Bell and guards Amini Silatolu and Trai Turner — due to injuries.
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