CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers found offense in various forms after a sluggish opener, grinding past the New Orleans Saints with quarterback Cam Newton becoming the third Carolina player to score a rushing touchdown in a 35-27 victory Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
Newton also threw for a touchdown as the Panthers avoided an 0-2 start to a season that began with consecutive games against NFC South rivals.
The Saints, operating under interim coach Aaron Kromer, fell to 0-2.
Quarterback Drew Brees of the Saints threw for 97 first-quarter yards before Carolina's pass rush kicked in and created havoc for the Saints' passing attack. He finished with 325 passing yards, though a first-quarter interception proved crucial.
After gaining only 123 yards during the middle two quarters, the Saints put together three significant drives. But a fourth-quarter threat ended inside the Carolina 25 when Brees was stripped of the ball and then misfired after picking up the ball on a fourth-down pass and the margin stayed at 15 points.
Brees later scored on a 1-yard run with 1:55 remaining. Carolina's Greg Olsen recovered an ensuing onside kick, though the Saints got the ball back at their own 20 with 48 seconds left. Two players later, Jon Beason intercepted Brees.
Running back Pierre Thomas gained 110 rushing yards on nine carries for New Orleans.
Steve Smith accounted for 104 receiving yards on three catches for the Panthers. Newton's 73 rushing yards paced the Panthers on the ground.
The Saints took 32 of the game's first 48 snaps, a trend that reversed when the Panthers started a ball-control offense that resulted in more than 200 rushing yards.
Brees hooked up with tight end Jimmy Graham for a 1-yard touchdown pass to complete a game-opening 11-play, 80-yard drive. Running back Darren Sproles caught five passes for 54 yards on the march, collecting half of his 128 receiving yards in the game. The Saints gave those points back on their next possession when Carolina safety Charles Godfrey stepped in front of a Brees pass and returned it 9 yards for a touchdown. It was the first interception returned for a touchdown in Godfrey's five-year career.
The Panthers moved inside the New Orleans 5-yard line but on fourth-and-inches Newton's wayward pitchout on the option resulted in a change of possession. Newton had picked up two rushing first downs on the drive.
The Saints responded to build a 13-7 edge on Garrett Hartley's 53-yard field goal.
Carolina took its first lead of the season at 14-13 after Jonathan Stewart ran 17 yards untouched with a screen pass from Newton with 3:33 left in the first half. When Mike Tolbert ran in from 2 yards out with 11 seconds remaining in the half, the Panthers ended up with a 21-13 advantage.
DeAngelo Williams ran in from 3 yards out as the Panthers pushed their lead to 28-13 midway through the third quarter.
The Saints went more than 24 minutes without scoring until Mark Ingram's 1-yard run with 12:53 to play.
The Panthers have a quick turnaround because they play Thursday night at home against the New York Giants.
Notes: Graham, a former high school basketball player in North Carolina before a college basketball career at Miami, dunked the ball through the goal posts after his touchdown catch, drawing boos from the fans. ... Stewart, a running back who missed the opener with an ankle injury, was the backup tailback against New Orleans, though he had a carry on the team's first possession. ... Side judge Brian Stropolo, a replacement official assigned to the game amid the NFL's labor dispute with its officials' union, was pulled in a pregame decision by the NFL when it was revealed that he had expressed adoration for the Saints via social media. So there was a replacement official for a replacement official. ... The Panthers lead the all-time series 18-17.