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New Orleans — Saints quarterback Drew Brees, receiver Michael Thomas and kicker Wil Lutz celebrated a decisive string of late-game successes that put New Orleans on the cusp of a third straight NFC South crown.

The Carolina Panthers could only lament the first-and-goal they squandered just moments earlier in a third straight loss that has placed their playoff prospects in jeopardy.

Lutz kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired, and New Orleans beat Carolina, 34-31, on Sunday to take a four-game lead in the NFC South with five games left.

“It’s exciting. It’s butterflies. But also, it’s confidence,” said Brees, who drove the Saints 83 yards with 1:51 left. “It’s unity. You feel like everybody knows the challenge ahead. Everybody knows what we need to do in order to accomplish whatever it is we need to accomplish to go win the game.

“Everybody just kind of locks in and goes.”

Lutz’s second winning kick this season capped a contest filled with late momentum shifts and critical errors — none bigger than Carolina kicker Joey Slye’s missed field goal from 28 yards with 2 minutes left.

Carolina trailed from early in the first quarter until 9:23 remained in the fourth quarter, when D.J. Moore reached up with his right hand to corral a fourth-and-goal pass in the back of the end zone to tie it at 31.

Soon after, Panthers safety Eric Reid stuffed Alvin Kamara on fourth-and-1 from the New Orleans 45. That set up a dramatic sequence in which Carolina coach Ron Rivera successfully challenged officials’ decision not to call pass interference on a third-down incomplete pass, giving Carolina a first down on the 3 with 2:21 left.

Christian McCaffrey’s run was stuffed, Kyle Allen threw incomplete on second down and Allen was sacked on third down by Marcus Davenport, setting the stage for the end of a difficult day for Slye, who’d also missed two extra-point kicks.

“I feel terrible,” Slye said. “We needed this win.”

Brees finished 30 of 39 for 311 yards and three touchdowns, but also was intercepted by Tre Boston, a play that helped Carolina come back in the fourth quarter. Michael Thomas had 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.

“We work that situation week in and week out and it always comes up to benefit us,” Thomas said of the Saints’ hurry-up offense. “I’m just grateful for not cheating the preparation.”

Allen passed for 256 yards and three TDs for Carolina (5-6), which saw its playoff hopes pushed to the brink.

“It is incredibly frustrating,” Allen said.

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