(Reuters) - Drew Brees torched Carolina's much-vaunted defense with four touchdown passes as the New Orleans Saints routed the Panthers 31-13 to regain control of the NFC South on Sunday.
A week after throwing for just 147 yards in a loss to Seattle, Brees picked the Panthers apart in a dominant performance that saw him pass for 313 yards.
In the process, Brees became the fifth quarterback to reach 50,000 career passing yards.
"I love this offense and I love what (coach) Sean Payton has put together," Brees told reporters. "We've been through some great times. We've shared the joy of a world championship, and now we're attempting to make another run at it."
The victory gave New Orleans (10-3) a one-game lead over Carolina (9-4) in the division with the two teams scheduled to meet again on December 22.
The Panthers, who had been on an eight-game winning streak coming into the game, took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter with two Graham Gano field goals, but it was all Brees from there.
The New Orleans quarterback tossed consecutive touchdown passes to Marques Colston in the second quarter and added a five-yard strike to Jimmy Graham for a 21-6 halftime lead.
Brees cooled a little in the second half, where he led New Orleans to a field goal in the third and another passing touchdown to Graham in the fourth, giving the home side a commanding 31-6 advantage.
Colston finished with nine catches for 125 yards for his best game of an up-and-down season.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton threw for 160 yards and ran for 48, throwing a 17-yard score to Steve Smith late in the fourth.
The Panthers defense came into the game giving up an NFL-best 13.1 points per game but were shredded by the potent Saints.
Instead, it was the New Orleans defense that stepped up, sacking Newton five times.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera lamented his team's inability to capitalize on possession deep in Saints territory.
"In the red zone, you've got to score touchdowns if you're going to beat a team like the Saints," he said.
"When you get to the red zone, you have to score."
(Reporting by Jahmal Corner; Editing by Peter Rutherford)