NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Drew Brees passed for 252 yards and three touchdowns and the New Orleans Saints led the Carolina Panthers 24-6 through three quarters Sunday night.
The Panthers' defense had not allowed more than two touchdowns in a game through the first 12 games of the season. The Saints scored three TDs in the second quarter, when Brees completed 14 of 16 passes for 159 yards. The Saints also became only the second team this season - Buffalo being the other - to score 24 points against Carolina, which entered the game No. 1 in scoring defense, allowing 13.1 points per game.
The Saints appeared to have reached 28 points on what would have been Marques Colston's third touchdown catch, but video review showed his knee touching down just before he reached the ball across the goal line.
The ruling gave New Orleans first-and-goal, but a run and two passing plays failed to get that last yard, setting up Garrett Hartley's short field goal.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was 12 of 22 passing for 89 yards, while DeAngelo Williams, returning from a quad contusion that sidelined him last week, rushed 12 times for 49 yards as the Panthers struggled to move the ball after the first quarter, when Graham Gano hit two field goals. Gano had a third chance from 49 yards in the third quarter, but kicked it wide right.
New Orleans started slow and trailed 6-0, but seemed ignited by Darren Sproles' 38-yard run late in the first quarter. That set up Colston's first of two touchdowns on a 6-yard catch early in the second quarter.
On their next possession, the Saints drove 86 yards in 11 plays, highlighted by veteran tight end Ben Watson's 20-yard catch and capped by Colston's second TD on a 15-yard pass over the middle
New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan surpassed the 10-sack plateau with a little more than 2 minutes remaining in the second quarter, and in the process forced the Panthers to punt deep in their own territory.
A holding penalty wiped out Sproles' return to midfield and forced New Orleans to start on its own 24 with 2:01 left. But Brees, who completed 17 of 21 passes, immediately found Lance Moore for 21 yards, then followed with completions of 19 yards to Colston and 20 yards to Sproles, setting up Jimmy Graham's 5-yard TD catch shortly before halftime.
Brees passed for 159 yards in the second quarter alone.
Gano kicked field goals of 45 and 24 yards as the Panthers took a 6-0 lead through one quarter, which ended with the Saints threatening to score their first points.
The Panthers had the ball for 11:30 of the first quarter, showing an early ability to run their offense in the face of an energized and loud Superdome crowd, revved up for a game that will decide sole possession of first place in the NFC South with three games left.
Carolina drove 53 yards for their first score and 26 for the second after Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt 32 yards. A 15-yard penalty was added to the return because of a horse-collar tackle by punter Thomas Morstead along the left sideline.
New Orleans' defense came through with clutch third down stops to keep Carolina out of the end zone, however.
Junior Galette had a sack - his first of two in the game - to stall the Panthers' opening drive, and Newton was forced to throw the ball away on third-and-goal from the 6 late in the first quarter.
The Saints' defense tightened up in the second quarter, and Carolina finished the half with only 110 net yards.