Drew Brees threw for 376 yards and two touchdowns, and New Orleans held on to beat Carolina, 31-26. (Stephen Lew/Usa Today Sports)

The New Orleans Saints made the most of their return to the NFL playoffs Sunday as quarterback Drew Brees celebrated with a turn-back-the-clock performance. Brees's prolific-once-more passing carried the Saints to a 31-26 triumph over the Carolina Panthers in an NFC first-round game.

The fourth-seeded Saints beat the Panthers for the third time this season, knocking Carolina quarterback Cam Newton from the game temporarily on a fourth-quarter hit before holding on late, and moved a step closer to a possible Super Bowl return for Brees. They will play at Minnesota against the second-seeded Vikings next weekend in a conference semifinal.

The Panthers essentially dared Brees to beat them, taking a defensive approach that focused on stopping the New Orleans running game. And that's precisely what Brees did, throwing for 376 yards and two touchdowns.

"If a team's going to do that, then obviously I feel like with the matchups we have outside, there should be opportunities," Brees said. "You still have to have a level of patience and take advantage of them when they do come around. I think what we've shown offensively is we have a lot of ways to be effective, a lot of weapons to spread the ball around."

The balance of the Saints' offense that was on display during the regular season gave way to Brees being the centerpiece in a pass-first approach Sunday. The Saints had only 41 rushing yards. But they sprinted to a lead while their defense limited the fifth-seeded Panthers to field goals instead of touchdowns until the fourth quarter.

Newton gave a superb performance in which he threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 37 yards. But the Panthers simply could not get into the end zone to finish drives until Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with just less than 13 minutes remaining. That pulled the Panthers to within 24-19.

But on Carolina's next drive, Newton was hit in the helmet by New Orleans defensive tackle David Onyemata on a sack. Newton got up and tried to reach the Panthers' sideline but fell to his knees on the way there. He was taken from the game and was replaced by backup Derek Anderson.

The Saints upped their lead to 31-19 on a touchdown run by tailback Alvin Kamara . Newton returned to the game and threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to running back Christian McCaffrey. Brees threw a fourth-down interception on a gamble by the Saints. But Carolina's last-gasp drive stalled after reaching New Orleans territory, in part because of an intentional grounding penalty on Newton. Newton was sacked on fourth down with six seconds left to seal the outcome. Panthers Coach Ron Rivera expressed displeasure afterward with the intentional grounding call.

"I don't know," Rivera said. "It would be nice to have the explanation."

The Panthers' once-promising season comes to an abrupt end, and now they face an offseason of uncertainty in which owner Jerry Richardson has said he will sell the franchise while he is investigated by the NFL for alleged workplace misconduct. Richardson spent time in Carolina's locker room following the game.

It was a day that belonged to the Saints, who never trailed. They did suffer a loss to the offensive line that safeguards Brees when guard Andrus Peat was taken from the field on a cart, reportedly after suffering a fractured fibula. But they gave a spirited, cohesive effort.

"That's an experienced team that's been in the playoffs — seasoned, ready," Saints Coach Sean Payton said of the Panthers. "Clearly we knew coming in that they were going to be a tough out. It wasn't going to be like the first game we played them or the second game. We knew it was going to be a challenge. . . . We knew coming in this would be completely different."

The Saints are back in the playoffs after three straight 7-9 seasons. They were hosting their first postseason game at the Superdome since the 2011 season. The atmosphere around town was predictably festive, and the crowd that was gathered inside the dome was ridiculously loud and enthusiastic. Fans cheered loudly when Steve Scalise, the Republican congressman from Louisiana who was wounded in last spring's shooting at a Washington-area baseball field, was shown with his son on the stadium's video boards.

Brees and Payton teamed to lead the Saints to a Super Bowl triumph in the 2009 season. But they have not been back to the NFC title game since. The Saints are one step away from that now, with Brees set to turn 39 in a week and eligible for unrestricted free agency in the offseason.

The Saints were improved this season in large part because Brees had so much help. The Saints could run the ball on offense, with Pro Bowl running backs Mark Ingram and Kamara, and they actually could play defense. Brees was asked to throw less often. He passed for far fewer yards than has been his New Orleans norm. But he still was very good, setting a single-season NFL record for completion percentage. And it was back to being the Brees show at the outset of Sunday's game.

In the first half alone, Brees connected on 13 of 18 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. He got things going in the first quarter with a deep throw to speedy wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a former Panther, for an 80-yard touchdown. When he threw his second touchdown pass, this one to tight end Josh Hill , early in the second quarter, the Saints had a 14-3 lead despite having only six rushing yards to that point.