NEW ORLEANS -- Maybe the New Orleans Saints should start putting all of their game plans together at 3 a.m. on Friday mornings.
Somehow the Saints (4-2) managed their most impressive offensive performance of the year in a 27-24 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, even though they had to keep adjusting on the fly when receiver Michael Thomas suffered a hamstring injury early in the week and receiver Emmanuel Sanders tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday afternoon.
Since the Saints had already installed so much of their offense with Sanders as part of the plan, coach Sean Payton said coaches were up until 3 a.m. Friday making adjustments. The result: great performances by Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and undrafted rookie receiver Marquez Callaway, among others, as New Orleans converted a staggering 12 of 14 third-down attempts and never punted once.
"Listen, obviously the first seven weeks here have been challenging. In various ways," Brees said with a laugh after completing passes to eight different pass catchers with 287 yards, two passing touchdowns and a TD run. "We've had injuries at times. We've been without Michael Thomas here for five games, Emmanuel being out for this game, young guys having to step up and really take on a big role.
"I can't say enough about guys like Marquez Callaway, Tre'Quan Smith. ... It's just been one of those deals where each week it's finding a different way to win. Each week it's finding different guys that are able to step up."
The Saints also lost standout left tackle Terron Armstead to an arm injury in the first half. And his backup, veteran James Hurst, promptly allowed a sack/fumble for the game's only turnover. But that was the only drive in which the Saints didn't score, prior to their final possession, when they ran out the clock.
"Look, one thing we know is the games are gonna be played," Payton said of the adversity the Saints have faced this year (they also came back from a 14-0 deficit at Detroit in Week 2 with six starters out of the lineup, and a 20-3 deficit against the Chargers in Week 5). "There's a couple other teams dealing with some pretty extreme adversity. And honestly, no one else outside your building really cares. So I'm proud of how our guys focused and found a way to get the win."
Callaway was the Saints' newest find -- an undrafted rookie from Tennessee who did his best impression of the Saints' most famous former hidden gem, receiver Marques Colston. The 6-foot-2, 204-pounder, who even wears the same No. 12 as Colston, caught eight passes for a team-high 75 yards. He also had a potential TD pass nullified by an offensive pass interference call on a pick play.
"Obviously everybody knows who [Colston] is, and coaches and players told me as soon as I got here when they found out I was wearing No. 12. But ain't no backing down. I'm ready to step up to the challenge and have fun doing it," said Callaway, who had just five catches for 50 yards before Sunday.
Brees also completed a critical 4-yard TD pass to undrafted receiver Deonte Harris just before halftime. Harris, who broke out as a rookie kick returner last year, had never caught a TD pass before he became the 71st player to catch one from Brees on Sunday.
But Kamara remained the Saints' ultimate go-to guy with his fifth consecutive game of 100-plus yards from scrimmage -- the longest current streak in the NFL.
Kamara had 14 carries for 83 yards and eight catches for 65 yards, including a spectacular effort to stay in bounds while converting a third-and-14 play.
"It's always pretty amazing," Brees said of Kamara's body control. "There's not many guys, if any, that can do some of the things that he does."
With 460 receiving yards, Kamara is now the fourth running back since 1950 with at least 450 receiving yards through his team's first six games, joining Marshall Faulk (2000), Paul Hofer (1980) and Timmy Brown (1965) according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Kamara also joined Christian McCaffrey and Roger Craig as the only three players with at least 2,500 rushing and 2,500 receiving yards through their first four seasons.
Last but not least was Brees, who has improved with each passing week after some early-season scrutiny over whether he was facing a steep decline at age 41. Brees' most impressive drive of the night was a TD march that lasted just 1:35 right before halftime.
"Two minute, I'd put us against any defense," Kamara said. "We're locked in on two-minute."
But Brees also led the Saints to a go-ahead field goal midway through the fourth quarter for his 52nd career game-winning drive. According to ESPN Stats & Info, only Peyton Manning has more in the Super Bowl era (54).