By BRETT MARTEL AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Wil Lutz kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired, and the New Orleans Saints beat the Carolina Panthers 34-31 on Sunday to take a four-game lead in the NFC South with five games left.
Drew Brees completed 30 of 39 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns, and led New Orleans from its own 14-yard line with 1:51 left to the Carolina 15 with 3 seconds remaining to set up the winning kick, capping a contest filled with late momentum shifts and critical errors — none bigger than Carolina kicker Joey Slye’s missed field goal from 28 yards with 2 minutes left.
New Orleans scored on the game’s opening possession and led until 9:23 remained in the fourth quarter, when D.J. Moore reached up with his right hand to corral a fourth-and-goal pass in the back of the end zone to tie it at 31.
Soon after, Panthers safety Eric Reid stuffed Alvin Kamara on a run to the right side on fourth-and-1 from the New Orleans 45. That set up a dramatic sequence in which Carolina coach Ron Rivera successfully challenged officials’ decision not to call pass interference on a third-down incomplete pass, setting up a first-and-goal at the 3 with 2:21 to go.
Carolina squandered its opportunity, however, after Christian McCaffrey’s run was stuffed and Kyle Allen threw incomplete on second down and was sacked on third down by Marcus Davenport, setting up the end of a difficult day for Slye, who’d also missed two extra-point kicks.
Michael Thomas had 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown for New Orleans (9-2), including receptions of 14 and 24 yards on the game-winning drive.
Allen passed for 256 yards and three TDs for Carolina (5-6), which saw its playoff hopes pushed to the brink. McCaffrey had 133 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage on a balance of runs and receptions.
The Saints took a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes on Latavius Murray’s 26-yard run and Tre’Quan Smith’s 13-yard touchdown catch on a play in which Brees froze Carolina’s defense with a play-fake to Kamara.
New Orleans’ second score was set up by a muffed punt that was initially ruled to have been first touched by New Orleans. Saints coach Sean Payton challenged, and replay showed the ball hit Carolina’s Rashaan Gaulden first, giving New Orleans the ball on the Panthers’ 27, where J.T. Gray had recovered it.
Carolina responded with Allen’s 51-yard pass to Moore and cut New Orleans’ lead to 17-15 at halftime with McCaffery’s short touchdown catch as time ran out in the second quarter — but only after an unnecessary roughness penalty by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan gave the Panthers a first down after Demario Davis’ third-down sack.
Jordan appeared to be trying to punch the ball from Allen, who had been wrapped up by Davis, but the whistle had blown and Jordan missed the ball, instead appearing to smack his forearm into Allen’s head.
The Panthers parlayed the first down into a 17-play, 68-yard scoring drive that consumed 6:30.
Carolina got no extra points after its first three TDs. In addition to Slye’s two misses, the Panthers attempted to pass for a 2-point conversion after their second TD, but it was broken up.
Panthers: Defensive tackle Dontari Poe appeared to hurt his left leg in the first half. Guard Greg Van Roten also had an apparent left leg injury in the first half. Reid rolled his left ankle in the third quarter but returned to the game.
Saints: Left tackle Terron Armstead left in the first half with an apparent leg injury. The Saints already were without left guard Andrus Peat, who normally slides over to tackle when Armstead is out, so Patrick Omameh subbed in at tackle next to guard Nick Easton, who was filling in at left guard.
Panthers: Host Washington on Sunday as they try to snap a three-game skid.
Saints: Visit Atlanta on Thursday night with a chance to lock up the NFC South.