Saints in first place -- and they have defense to thank

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New Orleans Saints finally won a road game Thursday night, wrestling control of the NFC South away from the Carolina Panthers with an emphatic 28-10 victory.

And they did it by literally wrestling the ball away from quarterback Cam Newton with a game-changing sack-fumble in the shadow of his own end zone with the game still scoreless late in the second quarter.

Who would've thought? A defense stepped up to turn the tide of a division that had become the NFL's laughingstock because of poor defensive play during the first half of the season.

No one in the NFC will be laughing if this is a sign of things to come from the Saints (4-4). New Orleans is the last place wild-card teams are going to want to visit come January.

"We definitely didn't stop believing," Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said after the defense went through many struggles during a 2-4 start. "We always had our confidence. But in football, sometimes you fall short. The [three] games we lost on the road was [by] a total of six points, which was devastating to us. But we kept our focus, we got great leaders in Drew [Brees] and Curtis Lofton and those guys, Junior Galette. They just told us don't get down on ourselves and we'll turn it around, and we did."

Lewis has quietly had another standout season, while the rest of the secondary has undergone growing pains. He spent much of Thursday's game matched up with rookie standout Kelvin Benjamin and helped hold him to two catches for 18 yards on 10 targets.

"You watch Keenan Lewis. I just finished telling him he was outstanding," Saints coach Sean Payton said. He also said the entire defense was outstanding.

Lewis was hardly alone on a night when Newton was about as off-target as he's ever been, completing just 10 of 28 passes for 151 yards.

Cornerback Corey White intercepted a tipped pass in the first half, and Newton was sacked four times.

Most important of all, New Orleans held Carolina scoreless in the first half despite two turnovers by the Saints' offense. It was a rare moment in which the Saints needed their defense to bail them out. And it delivered in a huge way.

"It feels great," said Galette, who sacked Newton to force that fumble late in the second quarter and finished with two sacks. "A wonderful feeling from what we've been through the past few weeks, knowing we lost a lot of close games."

Galette passed the credit for the forced fumble to defensive end Cameron Jordan.

"He pushed his tackle into the quarterback and before the play said he was gonna power and I'm gonna get high. And it worked out exactly how we planned it out to be," Galette said. "We knew that was probably the advantage we had was against their [injury-depleted] offensive line. We knew they had a few guys that were out. And Sean made the emphasis that we had to take advantage up front. And we did that tonight. We came together."

Of course, it must be noted that the Saints' defense remains a work in progress. And this Carolina offense was pretty punchless.

But the Saints' defense showed signs of this turnaround against an explosive Green Bay offense last week, and against Detroit and Tampa Bay in the games before that. New Orleans now has 12 sacks over the past 13 quarters.

"We didn't listen to the white noise," Galette said of the early-season criticism. "And here we are, first place in the division, and we can't get complacent. We still won't listen to the white noise and the good things people will say about us. Because we know how bad it feels when you're down.

"So we're just gonna keep our foot on the gas and not look back."