Maybe it was the offensively challenged Carolina Panthers, but the Saints defense -- which has been anything but a model of consistency this up-and-down season -- stepped up when it had to Sunday.
While the offense got most of the attention in blowing the doors out with a 21-point explosion in the third quarter of a 31-6 win over the Panthers, the defense came up with its finest performance.
A big fourth-down stop by the defense on the first play of the second quarter turned the game in the Saints' favor and the offense did the rest in turning a 3-0 deficit into a 31-6 lead by the end of the third period.
But the defense did much more than stop fullback Brad Hoover on a fourth-and-one play at the Saints' 33. They allowed season lows in points (six) and total yards (195), collected a season-high four takeaways and held the Panthers to just three of 13 on third-down conversions.
While creating four turnovers was a key, the fourth-down stop of Hoover was bigger considering the Panthers could have taken a 10-0 lead had they scored a touchdown on that possession.
"That play was huge," said Smith, who also batted down a pass and recovered a fumble that led to a Saints touchdown in the third quarter. "Hoover is their big short-yardage guy, so we wanted to be stout and solid up front. Hollis had a good push and I had a good push and Roman came up and finished the play."
The Saints offense took the ball and drove 67 yards to a one-yard TD pass from Drew Brees to wide receiver Lance Moore, giving them a lead they would never relinquish. Brees had a pass tipped and intercepted by Julius Peppers to set up the Panthers drive that the defense halted.
"Obviously, any time you give them a short field, you're putting your defense in a tough position," Brees said. "What can I say, our defense did a great job. That was a huge momentum swing right back to us. Stopping a team on fourth down is just like getting a turnover."
Colston went into Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers with three straight 100-yard receiving games. But a fourth straight game with 100 yards eluded him when the Saints, who led 31-6 after three quarters, shut down the passing attack after Colston reached 93 yards on a 12-yard reception early in the final period.
Colston already has two three-game 100-yard streaks in his two-year career, tying him with Joe Horn for the franchise record. Horn had originally set the record in 2000.
--After feasting on turkey and other holiday goodies on Thanksgiving, the Saints defense enjoyed a turnover feast in a 31-6 blowout of the Panthers on Sunday.
The Saints, who had only 11 takeaways in their first 10 games, got a season-high four against the Panthers on three interceptions and a fumble. The three picks also tied their season high, which they set in a Nov. 4 victory over Jacksonville.
As a result, the Saints were on the plus side of the turnover margin (plus-3) for just the third time in 11 games this season. They also won the other two games in which they had more takeaways than giveaways, going plus-one against Seattle and plus-two against Jacksonville.
Bullocks' interception was the first for the Saints in three games since cornerback Jason Craft, who had one of the team's other two picks Sunday, got one in the final seconds of their Nov. 11 win over Jacksonville.
That means the interception drought lasted nine-plus quarters for the Saints. Opposing quarterbacks threw 75 passes between interceptions by the Saints.
--The Saints failed to score on their opening possession Sunday, ending a four-game streak in which their first series produced points.
They scored touchdowns against San Francisco (Oct. 28) and St. Louis (Nov. 11) and had field goals vs. Jacksonville (Nov. 4) and Houston (Nov. 18).
--In Sunday's game, the Saints defense held the Panthers to 84 total yards and four first downs on 30 offensive plays in the first half.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--DT Brian Young, who has missed the last four games after having his left knee scoped on Nov. 7, could return for this week's game with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
--RB Reggie Bush was able to play against the Carolina Panthers after nursing a bruised left shin all week. He may be limited in practice again this week, but should be ready for Sunday's game.
--LDE Charles Grant also played without limitations against the Panthers after returning from a sprained right ankle that forced him to miss two games.
--DT Antwan Lake started his fourth straight game in place of Young against the Panthers and recorded the Saints' only sack.
--CB Usama Young played on special teams Sunday after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS
PASSING OFFENSE: A -- The Saints didn't get off to a great start in the first half, but they certainly made up for it in a decisive third quarter. After hitting on 12 of 20 passes for 102 yards in the first two quarters, Drew Brees was 11 of 14 for 148 yards with two TDs as he helped the Saints stretch a 10-6 halftime lead to 31-6. The passing game was solid and consistent in averaging 7.2 yards per pass play as Brees finished 24-for-36 for 260 yards and three TDs. He was not sacked and he threw one interception that Julius Peppers batted down and then pulled in for the pick. Marques Colston had seven catches for 93 yards.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- After struggling for several weeks, the Saints at least tried to run the ball against the Panthers even though Reggie Bush was slowed by a bruised left shin. Aaron Stecker started and had a team-high 42 yards on 13 carries. Stecker, Bush (9-32) and rookie Pierre Thomas (12-32) finished with 106 yards on 34 carries. As a team, the Saints had 113 yards on 39 attempts and a 2.9 average, but they had some nice inside runs at times. Brees also scored his first touchdown with the Saints on an eight-yard quarterback draw in the third quarter.
PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Saints went into the game ranked 28th against the pass, but came up with their best performance of the season in holding the Panthers to 152 net yards. They pressured David Carr and backup Matt Moore all day and they completed just 18 of 36 passes. Carr threw a pair of interceptions and Moore also tossed a pick as the Saints tied their season high with three interceptions. They held All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith, who has been a thorn in the Saints' side in the past, to 47 yards on six receptions with a long of 14. The only negative was a 41-yard pass-interference penalty on a deep ball intended for Drew Carter.
RUSH DEFENSE: A-plus -- This was another bright spot for the Saints as they limited the Panthers to 43 yards and a 2.4 average on 18 carries. Even that number was skewed somewhat as Smith had a 22-yard gain on a reverse. That means the Saints held the Panthers' running backs to 21 yards on 17 attempts. Starter DeShaun Foster had minus-five yards on nine carries and he fumbled twice, with the Saints recovering one. The play of the game came in the second quarter when the Panthers gambled on fourth-and-one at the New Orleans 33, only to have a swarming defense stuff fullback Brad Hoover for no gain. The Saints offense used that momentum swing to drive 67 yards for a touchdown that gave them a 7-3 lead.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- The Saints were good on kick coverage, holding the Panthers to a 6.0 average on punt returns and a 16.8 average on six kickoffs. The Saints averaged 6.0 yards on punts and 21.5 yards on kickoffs. Punter Steve Weatherford averaged 42.6 yards a kick with a long of 51 yards in rainy, windy conditions and Olindo Mare booted a 46-yard field goal. Mare missed his only other try, but that one was a 57-yard attempt on the final play of the first half.
COACHING: A -- Sean Payton did a better job of balancing the run and the pass against Carolina and had just the right mix to keep the Panthers on their heels most of the day. Overall, Payton and his staff deserve credit for getting their team to bounce back and be ready after two straight disappointing losses in games they figured to win.