CHARLOTTE – It almost happened again.
The Carolina Panthers entered the fourth quarter with a 23-3 lead, having held New Orleans' offense – one of the best in the league – to only 150 passing yards and a 20 percent conversion rate on third down.
That's when the Saints threatened to rally much like the Chiefs had against Carolina just four days ago. But this time the Panthers held on for an important divisional victory, winning 23-20 and improving their record to 4-6.
The first half belonged to the Panthers. Everything was going their way. Defensive end Mario Addison sacked quarterback Drew Brees on the Saints' opening possession, knocking the ball out of his grasp and then falling on the ball for Carolina's first takeaway to set up the Panthers' first three points of the game.
"It was great," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That helped set the tempo."
The Saints answered back on their ensuing drive with a field goal of their own to tie the score at 3-3. From there the game transitioned into a short battle of field position. Three straight possessions ended in punts, including the first two of newly signed Panthers punter Michael Palardy's career.
The play after Palardy's second punt was an important one: the Panthers' second takeaway of the night. On first down from the 20-yard line, Brees spied open tight end Coby Fleener tearing down the right sideline with only safety Kurt Coleman to beat.
"I said it leading up this week: no balls over our head," Coleman said. "This offense is very dynamic, and Drew is very smart. What they do well is beat you with a lot of trickery and beat you over top and make a lot of big plays. That was our Achilles heel the first we played them."
Coleman and the Panthers learned from their mistakes five weeks ago, as it was the safety that caught the ball instead of Fleener. Coleman returned the ball 12 yards to create a 34-yard field for the Panthers' offense, which they were able to convert into a touchdown.
Returner Marcus Murphy muffed the ensuing kickoff, pinning the Saints deep in their own territory. A three-and-out forced a short field for the Carolina, and once again they capitalized for three points.
New Orleans returned to the field eager to get points on the board before halftime, moving the ball 55 yards in eight plays. Another Addison sack stalled the Saints' drive at the 20-yard line, leaving Will Lutz to attempt a 38-yard field goal.
The ball didn't have the chance to get past the line of scrimmage.
Vernon's block landed squarely into linebacker Luke Kuechly's arms, who returned the ball the full length of the field for a touchdown. Or so he thought. The return was called back to the Saints' 40-yard line for a block in the back penalty.
But that was no matter for the offense. On the very next play, Newton found a streaking Ted Ginn, Jr. in the back of the end zone. While falling to the ground, the wide receiver dragged his foot before going out of bounds to set the halftime score at 20-3.
"We got the ball, and (offensive coordinator) Mike Shula felt very strongly about being able to throw the nine-route," said Rivera. "So he went ahead and called it and it was perfect, right where it needed to be thrown."
Yet after the Panthers' domination of the first half, New Orleans had pulled within a field goal of tying the game with 2:52 remaining in regulation.
Two Saints touchdowns in the fourth quarter paired with three straight Panthers three-and-outs seemed to spell trouble again for Carolina. The Saints exploded for 168 yards in the fourth quarter, including 54 yards on the ground against the second-best rush defense in the league by backup running back Tim Hightower.
Two minutes and 39 seconds remained. The Panthers had failed to move the ball a single yard from the 15-yard line on their first two plays following the Saints' previous score. Palardy was already warming up in the kicking net.
Who else for Newton to throw to on third down than receiver Kelvin Benjamin? Who else than the man who's catch was torn out of his hands four days before to allow the Chiefs to score the game-winning field goal?
"It was very big, especially with that happened last week," Benjamin said. "Throw and catch and I got it. It felt good."
Newton connected with Benjamin on third-and-10 for 18 yards and an important first down. While the Saints defense prevented Carolina from converting another first down, the damage was done. Benjamin's catch allowed the Panthers to burn almost two minutes off the clock, leaving the Saints with only 14 seconds after returning a Palardy punt to advance into scoring position.
Time expired on the Saints' comeback attempt, and Carolina claimed its first victory over an NFC South opponent.
"Division opponent and a short week," guard Trai Turner said. "We got the victory so I couldn't be happier."
View game action photos from Carolina's 23-20 victory over New Orleans.