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Saints save season, avoid a rough flight to London

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Turns out, the New Orleans Saints weren’t ready to call it a season just yet.

They got a stunning bounce-back performance from the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense (three interceptions and four sacks).

They got their best offensive performance to date against the Carolina Panthers, who had the top-ranked defense through two weeks.

And they got a win they desperately needed after an ugly 0-2 start.

The Saints’ 34-13 victory at Carolina saved them from a miserably long flight to London on Sunday night. More importantly, it saved them from a miserably long season.

The Saints were staring down a realistic scenario in which they might start 0-4 heading into the bye week — complete with all the “splash reports” speculating on coach Sean Payton’s job security that would have come with it.

Now they can bring momentum with them on that intercontinental flight and maybe start thinking about a playoff run if they can beat the Miami Dolphins in Week 4. Plus, they get receiver Willie Snead back from his three-game suspension for an extra boost.

“It was big. It’s big to create momentum, and going into London and having this road trip, it’s good to have the momentum going forward,” new Saints linebacker A.J. Klein said. “Because this road trip could be seen as a distraction, or we could use it to grow. And I think Coach touched on it earlier in the week, this two-week stretch of us being on the road is gonna be a big tell of the team we’re gonna be for the rest of the season, finding our identity and really starting to mature as a defense and come together and perform.

“And I think we did that today.”

“It was good to get one,” Payton added. “Obviously there’s that sense of urgency. … I think we had a good week of practice, I thought we had some good things early on (in Sunday’s game) happen. The first drive was good. Defensively, the first turnover resulted in a touchdown.

“There will be a lot that we have to clean up, but I was pleased that the players were able to get a win.”

There were many stars in New Orleans’ first victory, but the two biggest were probably receiver Michael Thomas and safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Thomas had five catches for 50 yards and his first touchdown of the season on New Orleans’ opening drive after being bottled up by defenses paying extra attention to him during the first two weeks. He finished with seven catches for 87 yards.

Meanwhile, Vaccaro came up with a huge response to being benched last week. He tipped one pass early in the fourth quarter that turned into a spectacular one-handed interception by rookie safety Marcus Williams. Then Vaccaro intercepted another pass later in the fourth quarter when Carolina had crossed midfield and was threatening to make it a one-score game.

It wasn’t a perfect performance by New Orleans’ defense, which still allowed rookie running back Christian McCaffrey to catch nine passes for 101 yards. But it was a game-changer after the Saints’ defense allowed more than 1,000 yards and 65 points in the first two weeks.

Third-year cornerback P.J. Williams also had his first career interception. And second-year cornerback Ken Crawley had a couple of big-time plays after being a healthy inactive the first two weeks. The Saints’ secondary stepped up in a huge way after being depleted by injuries this past week (starting cornerback Marshon Lattimore and veteran backup corner Sterling Moore were both inactive).

The Saints also got their first big play from new receiver Ted Ginn Jr. against his former team (a 40-yard touchdown catch) and bursts from all three of their running backs in a balanced effort. Mark Ingram had a total of 86 yards from scrimmage. Rookie Alvin Kamara had his first NFL touchdown on a 25-yard run late in the game. And Adrian Peterson had a season-high 33 yards on nine carries (including a season-long 11-yard run).

“It felt great. Great to get a win, it felt great to break the seal,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 220 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions — as the Saints’ offense remained turnover-free on the year. “I think we all felt like we were a lot closer than maybe it seemed or felt. When you come away with two losses like that to start the season, when there was a sense of urgency to get things started fast, it would be easy to get disappointed and maybe down. But we just got back to basics this week in some ways.”

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