CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For one week at least, the Saints lived up to the expectations of Super Bowl champions.
Playing the Carolina Panthers can make any team look like a winner.
Drew Brees threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns, Jabari Greer returned an interception for a touchdown and the Saints became the latest team to shut down Carolina's NFL-worst offense in a 34-3 victory over the banged-up Panthers on Sunday.
The Saints (6-3) overcame the loss of tight end Jeremy Shockey to a rib injury after his touchdown catch to keep pace in the competitive NFC South. Rookie tight end Jimmy Graham caught his first NFL TD in Shockey's absence and the Saints held Carolina to 195 yards.
Things just keep getting worse for the Panthers (1-7). They lost quarterback Matt Moore and running back Jonathan Stewart to first-half injuries. Rookie QB Jimmy Clausen was later benched and the Panthers finished with 195 yards.
Brees overcame his 12th interception early to complete 27 of 43 passes. He was replaced by Chase Daniel after Ladell Betts' 1-yard TD run made it 34-3 with 8:12 left. It ensured the Saints would enter their bye week with as many wins as any team in the NFC and remain a half-game behind NFC South leader Atlanta.
New Orleans got a boost to its banged-up secondary with the return of Greer and Tracy Porter, enough to stymie the Panthers' woeful passing attack and complete their first season sweep of Carolina since 2001.
The Panthers went 1-15 that season, and this year is looking just as bad.
Moore was 3 of 6 for 13 yards before leaving with an injured throwing shoulder after Sedrick Ellis sacked him in the second quarter. Clausen was no better and Greer returned his poor pass 24 yards to make it 27-3 late in the third quarter.
Embattled coach John Fox yanked Clausen early in the fourth quarter after he completed 8 of 18 passes for 47 yards. It allowed rookie Tony Pike to make his NFL debut. The sixth-round pick from Cincinnati finished 6 of 12 for 47 yards.
By then, the Panthers were down to a skeleton crew and few of their home fans were left in the stands to watch it.
Stewart, starting with DeAngelo Williams (foot) missing his second straight game, left in the first quarter with a head injury after gaining 30 yards on five carries.
The Saints won a replay challenge on the play, giving them the ball when it was ruled Stewart fumbled. It set up Brees' 7-yard touchdown catch to Shockey to give New Orleans the lead for good at 7-3.
Shockey, though, injured his ribs on what was his 500th career catch and didn't return. He was spotted getting into an ambulance just before halftime.
The Saints didn't need him, not with the Panthers failing to reach double digits in points for the fourth time in eight games. And even the backups got hurt — third-string running back Tyrell Sutton left with an ankle injury.
The Saints have had their share of injuries, too, namely to running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas. They remained sidelined and the Saints got off to a slow start.
Brees bobbled a snap deep in Carolina territory on the first possession, then rushed a throw that bounced off Robert Meachem's hands and was picked off by Richard Marshall. He returned Brees' 12th interception — one more than he had all of last season — 67 yards to set up John Kasay's 20-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
That was the only offensive success for the Panthers, who finished with 68 yards passing and had two more turnovers to give them 25 on the season.
Top receiver Steve Smith didn't get his first catch until the final minute.