Drew Brees leads Saints to wild-card win over Panthers

Brees sliced and diced Carolina's secondary, throwing for 376 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead the New Orleans Saints to a 31-26 shootout victory over the Panthers in the NFC's Wild Card Weekend showdown. Here's what we learned on Sunday:

1. Carolina's defense stonewalled New Orleans' vaunted ground attack, giving Cam Newton a chance to play the hero just minutes after clearing a concussion evaluation that resulted from a vicious David Onyemata hit. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Cameron Jordan took over from there, hitting Newton three times over a four-play series in scoring territory. The first hit nearly led to a game-ending Marshon Lattimore interception. The second hit prompted an intentional grounding penalty that left Newton in a desperate third-and-23 situation. The third hit sealed the victory as Jordan and Vonn Bell drove Newton back 17 yards for a fourth-and-long sack. The best Cam on the field, Jordan finished with a sack, two pass deflections and four hits on Newton.

2. After a slow start for both offenses, this NFC South grudge match turned in New Orleans' favor on a two-possession sequence late in the first quarter. An end-zone drop by wideout Kaelin Clay was followed by a missed chip shot from Panthers kicker Graham Gano. Clay's gaffe ultimately resulted in a 14-point swing when Drew Brees dialed up a bomb that Ted Ginn took 80 yards to the house for a 7-0 lead. Brees went on to hit nine consecutive passes, entering halftime with a 151.4 passer rating and a 21-9 lead.

In three victories over Carolina this season, Brees completed 70 of 96 attempts (72.9 percent) for 865 yards (9.0 YPA), a 6:1 TD-to-INT ratio and a sterling 116.9 passer rating. He's now averaging an NFL-record 326.3 passing yards in 12 career postseason games. If not for a desperation fourth-down heave that was picked by Mike Adams, he would also own the best TD-to-INT ratio (26:7) in playoff history.

3. How has the Brandin Cooks trade worked out for New Orleans? Splendidly. The draft pick acquired in that trade was used to select right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, the best rookie offensive lineman in the league this season. Meanwhile, Michael Thomas has thrived as Brees' go-to target, breaking the NFL record for most receptions in a player's first two seasons. A Panthers killer, Thomas pulled off a spectacular diving catch to set up Zach Line's touchdown, gained 46 yards on a deep crossing route to set up Alvin Kamara's touchdown and came down with a back-shoulder grab versus Captain Munnerlyn to move the sticks late in the fourth quarter. It's easy to see why Brees told FOX's Troy Aikman that he's never been around a more competitive receiver than the man who goes by the fitting Twitter handle @Cantguardmike.

4. The Saints' offensive line has been among the league's most effective in pass protection and run blocking despite shuffling through a litany of injuries. After welcoming left tackle Terron Armstead back to the starting lineup Sunday, they lost stalwart guard Andrus Peat to a broken fibula early in second quarter, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported. Although backup Senio Kelemete has picked up valuable experience as a jack-of-all-trades throughout the season, the dynamic halfback duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara managed to grind out just 45 yards on 19 carries versus the Panthers. The most consistent, dominant running game in the league looms as a question mark entering the Divisional Round bout with an imposing Vikings front seven.

5. Credit for that dismal output goes to a sideline-to-sideline Panthers linebacker corps that forced Brees to lean on the pass. Everything you hear about Luke Kuechly is true, Brees assured Aikman. The perennial All Pro knows better than any other linebacker what the offense plans to do before the snap.

6. Inconsistent throughout the season due to ongoing mechanical flaws, a hit-or-miss ground attack and a subpar wide receiver corps, Newton was closer to the 2015 MVP version than the erratic passer who lost at Atlanta in the regular-season finale. He overcame a couple of crucial mistakes from his wideouts to hit rookie playmaker Christian McCaffrey and veteran tight end Greg Olsen for big plays down the stretch. A 19-yard pass to Devin Funchess, a pinpoint 21-yard sideline laser to Kaelin Clay and a holding penalty drawn by McCaffrey had Newton in position to pull off a dramatic comeback before Jordan slammed the door shut.

7. If the Saints are going to run the table in the NFC tournament, they have a chance to do the damage entirely in dome stadiums. A victory next week at Minneapolis' U.S. Bank Stadium would result in a return home to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome if the Falcons manage to upend Nick Foles and the Eagles. Under that scenario, one more win would catapult the Saints into the Super Bowl -- and a return to the Vikings' home dome.