CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sean Payton and Drew Brees made some more NFL history on Monday night. And they have their defense to thank for it.
Payton and Brees won their 117th regular-season game together when the New Orleans Saints survived a 12-9 slugfest with the rival Carolina Panthers -- passing Don Shula and Dan Marino for second place among coach/QB combos during the Super Bowl era.
They trail only Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who have a whopping 205 regular-season wins together.
The Saints (12-2) now need just one more victory to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, which would be huge considering how much their offense has struggled away from home over the past three weeks.
Brees threw for just 203 yards with zero touchdowns and an interception Monday night. He also had a two-point conversion pass attempt intercepted and returned for a Panthers two-point play instead early in the fourth quarter.
And the Saints again failed to secure the game with less than two minutes remaining when receiver Tommylee Lewis lost a fumble through the back of the end zone while trying to lunge for the goal line. But the Panthers (6-8) failed to take advantage as they lost their sixth straight game.
"I'd say for us offensively, walking off the field just a little while ago, I just felt like, 'Man, there was tons of opportunities out there.' We killed ourselves on a few drives with just some stupid penalties," Brees said. "I felt like there were some missed opportunities. But bottom line is you make the plays at the end of the game to win the game. And that's what we did -- defensively, absolutely.
"There's a lot to be said for that -- you find ways to win. Win in a lot of different ways. Battle tested. Listen, these last two weeks we've had to come back and win in the fourth quarter. The great teams find a way. They believe. They feel like we're all gonna step up, we're gonna do this, somebody's gonna make a play."
Brees' MVP hopes might be dashed after averaging just 177 passing yards per game over the past three weeks in a loss at Dallas and wins at Tampa Bay and Carolina, with a total of two touchdown passes and three interceptions.
Fortunately, the Saints' defense has quietly emerged as one of the NFL's most dominant units over the past six weeks, holding six straight opponents to 17 points or fewer. The Saints lead the NFL in points allowed since Week 4 (17.2 points per game), with a total of 39 sacks and 21 takeaways in that span.
They had one of their best performances to date on Monday night, despite allowing a 50-yard touchdown pass by running back Christian McCaffrey to tight end Chris Manhertz on a trick play on fourth-and-2 in the first quarter.
After that, Carolina's offense never scored again. Saints cornerback Eli Apple intercepted a pass in the end zone in the final seconds of the first half. And Saints safety Vonn Bell forced a fumble against Panthers receiver DJ Moore in the third quarter.
"Defensively we were outstanding," Payton said. "It's great to see. We're getting the takeaways, we're getting the hurries. The third-down numbers were good. And it's the right time of year."
The Saints also sacked Cam Newton four times while holding him to 131 passing yards and 15 rushing yards.
And the defense had to go back on the field one more time after Lewis' fumble to keep Carolina from scoring one last time. The Panthers never even reached their own 40-yard line.
"I wanted to go out there," Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore said. "I like being in those situations, where it's on us. I like that. We didn't get it done in Dallas [two weeks ago]. But we gotta keep going. We still got that dog in us. We knew we had it.
"We've been turning it up, man. We just got our swag back from last year. Like I told you at the beginning of the season, we've got to build up every game, get better every game. And that's what we've been doing. And now we feel like can't nobody get a point on us. That's from our hard work."
The Saints finished Monday's game without two of their starting offensive linemen (center Max Unger was ruled out after being evaluated for a concussion and left tackle Jermon Bushrod left with an unspecified injury). And now they will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on a short week Sunday before hosting the Panthers again in Week 17.
A win in either game would secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the Saints, who beat the Los Angeles Rams (11-3) head-to-head.
Payton and Brees are 117-71 in the regular season together since they both arrived in New Orleans in 2006 -- not counting the 2012 season, when Payton was suspended because of Bountygate.