CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Drew Brees kept stepping up in the pocket, spreading the ball among his receivers and moving the New Orleans Saints downfield for the go-ahead score as the time ticked away in the fourth quarter.
The veteran passer gave rookie Cam Newton a lesson in staging comebacks.
Brees found Pierre Thomas wide open on the right side for a 6-yard touchdown with 50 seconds left, helping the Saints rally past the Carolina Panthers 30-27 on Sunday for their fourth straight win.
Brees threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns, including that nearly flawless final drive in which he completed 8 of 9 passes for 80 yards to take back momentum after Newton and the Panthers (1-4) had taken their first lead earlier in the period. Making it even more impressive, the drive lasted more than six minutes and left Carolina with little time to answer.
"Calm, cool, collected," Brees said of the Saints' mentality entering the final drive. "We've been here many times before, which we have. Let's just go be us. Let's do what we do. Nothing spectacular, but just methodical. And hey, if we end up getting a big play that scores one from 50 yards out, great. But we're ready to march it down and convert some critical third downs and spread the ball around."
The Panthers reached midfield on their final drive before Newton's desperation heave downfield fell incomplete on the final play, capping a game that nearly included a brawl in the first quarter after a 54-yard touchdown catch by Carolina's Steve Smith.
Newton threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 5-yard scoring pass to Greg Olsen for a 27-23 lead with 12:32 to play. He also scored on a sneak late in the third quarter. But when it was over, Newton and the Panthers had suffered their fourth loss by seven or fewer points.
Afterward, Newton sat motionless for several minutes facing his locker, his head in his hands as he stared down at the floor. Smith sat in the chair to his right, quietly talking with the NFL's top overall draft pick.
"I mean, you've got standards," Newton said. "And when you don't meet that quota on yourself, you just ask yourself why. There's a reason we keep losing. And I want to know the reason."
Mark Ingram also ran for a second-quarter touchdown for the Saints (4-1), while Brees found Jed Collins for a short scoring pass about a minute into the game after Newton tossed an interception on his first throw. But Brees' biggest target was tight end Jimmy Graham, who had eight catches for 129 yards and repeatedly beat undersized defenders to the ball.
In addition, Saints kicker John Kasay — who was on the first Panthers squad in 1995 and stayed with the team until last season — had three field goals in his return to Charlotte.
Newton seemed poised to deliver an impressive win, starting when he bulled his way through a pile up at the goal line for a 1-yard keeper late in the third. Then, after Brees threw an interception, Newton came through by zipping a pass to Olsen just inside the goal line for the lead.
Newton even got the ball back with a chance with about 10 minutes left. But the Panthers managed to burn only three minutes and reach midfield before punting back to the Saints — and Brees made them pay.
"We just found a way to win this game, and that's pretty important," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "You learn a lot about your team in that type of environment."
Of course, the first quarter made things a little testier between division rivals.
Newton stepped up in the pocket — aided by a block from Jonathan Stewart that flipped blitzer Jonathan Vilma over his shoulder — and fired a high pass downfield to Smith. Smith jumped to beat cornerback Jabari Greer to the pass, knocking Greer to the ground and giving Smith an easy 30-yard run to the end zone.
But as Smith coasted the final 5 yards and crossed the goal line, safety Roman Harper sprinted in on the left side and leveled Smith with a hard hit.
Smith immediately jumped up and spun the ball to the turf defiantly while players from both sides ran down and began shoving each other. Smith then locked up with Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, shoving him to the ground and standing over him while holding a firm grip on Jenkins' facemask before the scuffle finally ended.
"I did what I did, which was spin the ball, score a touchdown," Smith said. "I didn't do anything. ... People say I'm unpredictable but I'm growing up a little bit. I'm waiting for my growth spurt still but I'm growing up."
Harper's late hit was the only penalty called.
"If you're going to score, go score, but a guy is not going to try and just walk it in on us like that," Harper said. "You're going to have to pay for it as you get past the goal line."
Notes: Carolina's DeAngelo Williams had a 69-yard touchdown run on an option pitch from Newton in the second quarter. ... The game was a matchup of the past two Heisman Trophy winners in Newton and Ingram from rivals Auburn and Alabama. ... Saints receiver Marques Colston had five catches for 69 yards in his second game back from a broken collar bone.