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 offense. Love what Sean Payton's put together," Brees said.
The Panthers' defense 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 defense, allowing 13.1 points per game.
"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."
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 seasons 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.