Saints take 31-17 lead over Patriots

Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes and the New Orleans defense came up with a key fourth-down stop and the Saints took a 31-17 lead on the New England Patriots at the end of the third quarter on Monday night.

On the first play after the Patriots closed within 24-17, Marques Colston converted a short pass into a 68-yard gain to the New England 6 when cornerback Jonathan Wilhite missed a tackle. Brees followed with a 2-yard scoring toss to tight end Darnell Dinkins, who had his first touchdown of the season.

The Patriots responded by driving to the Saints 10, but cornerback Mike McKenzie broke up Tom Brady‘s fourth-and-4 pass for Randy Moss.

Brees was 14 of 16 for 311 yards. Brady was 20 of 23 for 233 yards and one touchdown.

It was the second time in three weeks that the Patriots were playing an undefeated team on the road, having lost to Indianapolis on a late Peyton Manning touchdown pass.

New England, the only team to go 16-0 in NFL history, was trying to stop the Saints from joining the Colts at 11-0. The NFL has never had a season with two 11-0 teams.

New England appeared to be in big trouble when Laurence Maroney fumbled after a short reception on the first play of the quarter, but New Orleans defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis fumbled right back after returning the ball to the Patriots 19.

Brady then went 4 for 5 on an 81-yard touchdown drive, including a 49-yard pass to Moss to the New Orleans 2. Maroney scored untouched on the next play.

Brady became the Patriots‘ career passing leader, moving past Drew Bledsoe‘s total of 29,657 with an 11-yard completion to Sam Aiken.

Brees’ scoring passes of 18 yards to Pierre Thomas, 75 yards to Devery Henderson and 38 yards to Robert Meachem gave New Orleans a 24-10 lead at halftime.

The second quarter was all Saints. After an interception gave New Orleans the ball at the New England 30, Thomas converted a fourth down with a 3-yard run. He then took a short throw from Brees, avoided a tackle while straddling the sideline and went across the goal line to give the Saints a 10-7 lead.

New Orleans forced a punt, and on the next play, Henderson took advantage of a busted coverage for an easy 75-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage this season for the Saints.

Wilhite blitzed, and no one picked up Henderson, who caught the ball at the 50 with a wide-open path to the end zone.

After New England cut its deficit to 17-10 on a 36-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, Brees went 4 for 4 on a five-play, 76-yard drive. He connected with tight end David Thomas, acquired in a trade with the Patriots at the end of preseason, for 25 yards and hit Meachem with a perfectly thrown ball on a deep post for the touchdown.

Gostkowski missed a 50-yard field goal with 13 seconds left.

Maroney’s fourth-down touchdown run gave the Patriots a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. Maroney finished the half with 64 yards.

After John Carney kicked a 30-yard field goal, the Patriots drove 80 yards on 14 plays on their opening possession, with Maroney carrying eight times for 39 yards.

Sammy Morris converted a fourth-and-1 with a 3-yard run to the Saints 33 after Moss dropped a third-down pass.

Maroney capped a more than 7-minute drive with a 4-yard run as coach Bill Belichick went for it on another fourth down.

Brady had 33 yards passing on the drive. Brady finished the half 12 for 21 for 124 yards.

The Saints scored on their opening drive for the seventh time this season. Brees hit Henderson down the sideline for a 33-yard gain on the first play, leading to a 30-yard field goal by Carney that bounced off the left upright.

New England missed a chance to extend its lead after Wes Welker‘s 41-yard punt return to the New Orleans 46. On the next play, McKenzie, playing for the first time since breaking his right kneecap on Nov. 9, 2008, intercepted Brady’s short pass over the middle. It was the Saints‘ 21st interception of the season.