CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers manhandled New Orleans all day Sunday, grounding the league's most polished passing game in a 30-7 thrashing at Bank of America Stadium.
The Saints left immediately for London (minus injured running back Reggie Bush), but it looked like they were searching luggage for their passports about the middle of the first half.
This was a beating every bit as convincing as the one the Panthers absorbed last week, a 27-3 disaster at Tampa Bay.
So the bounce-back thrilled them, even exceeding their own expectations.
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"I didn't think it would be a game like this," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "I knew we would play better because we were so poor last week. Usually when you get embarrassed like we did last week, you are going to come back and fight. And we did, we fought."
And they won, convincingly so.
The Panthers limited the Saints to 228 passing yards, nearly 100 off their average. They held a team averaging 28.7 points per game to a single touchdown on the first play of the second quarter, and they barely made a peep afterward.
The Saints' stats actually overstated what they were able to do against the Panthers. A late blown coverage decision by rookie safety Charles Godfrey resulted in a 54-yard gain by Devery Henderson, nearly a quarter of their total for the day. Granted, that one came long after the game was decided. But it was instructive for the way they shrugged it off, stopping the Saints on a fourth down at the goal line to keep them from getting to double digits.
"Yeah, stuff like that happens, then we get a fourth-down stop," Godfrey said. "That's overcoming, and that's what makes us a great defense and a great team. We know we're going to have some bumps in the road, but we're overcoming it, man.
"I can't say it enough, the chemistry of this defense and this team is just taking us over the top."
What's fascinating about this bunch is how quickly they can pull one of these out, after issuing last week's ridiculousness.
There are still fair and pointed questions to be asked about this team, specifically how they can play so differently, so recently.
Defensive tackle Damione Lewis laughed when asked about the difference. He's seen them caught on the wrong side of the snowball rolling downhill twice, against the Bucs and Minnesota. But it's the other five he's watched that have impressed him, and he's leaning toward what their record reveals as to their true character.
"If we come out (messing around), then last week is our team," Lewis said. "If we come out and play like we did in San Diego, like we did against Kansas City, like we did against Chicago, then hell, this is the team. We've got to find a way to put wins together and constantly come out with our best performances. The teams that do go to the Super Bowl, the teams that don't find themselves wanting at the end of the season. It's as simple as that.
"It's a thin line, it's a real thin line. I mean, bad stuff happens early on, a team gets down and never gets out of it. Which is what happened last week. This week they hit us early, had some long drives early, but we fought our way out of it. They challenged us, and we answered. Last week, we got challenged and we didn't answer."
Now, if they could only do this on a consistent basis, they'd answer most of the questions about them.
They didn't run for great fantasy numbers, but DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart nearly evenly split 134 yards. The offensive line finally allowed a sack (their first in four games), but they protected Delhomme well enough to throw for 195 yards and two touchdowns.
But the story of this one was the way they throttled the Saints, never let them up off the canvas after their early success.
The Panthers pressed the New Orleans receivers at the line of scrimmage, never allowing them to get into the rhythm that makes their offense swing.
"You can't let a potent offense like that run free," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "We feel like if we can make a team pass, that's an advantage to us, because we've got DBs who can cover well."
They only finished with one sack (by Julius Peppers, in perhaps his best game), but they pressured Drew Brees enough to make him hurry, never allowing anything downfield other than the Henderson bust.
"As a linebacker, when he's playing like that, I'm not going to make any plays," Jon Beason said of Peppers. "That's how it should be."
And in perhaps the most amazing development, they caught one of the balls they had their hands on. Linebacker Thomas Davis and Beason each had hands on Brees' passes, but Lucas finally delivered, snagging his second of the year.
In short, they dominated an offense that was rolling.
"We kept saying, 'Let's finish them, let's finish them, don't give them nothing,'" Beason said. "And we didn't. Even when they hit us with big plays, we stepped it right back up."
Now, in perhaps the most amazing turnaround of the day, they're a strong team at home.
Their 4-0 start at Bank of America Stadium is their first since 1996 (the year they went 9-0 in Charlotte en route to the NFC Championship game), and it comes on the heels of their 2-6 home mark a year ago.
"We're playing good at home; this feels like it's a true home-field advantage," safety Chris Harris said, a tinge of surprise in his voice that it was true. "We know we need to protect this house."