(AP Photo/Bill Feig). New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) leaps over Carolina Panthers cornerback Daryl Worley (26) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. The Saints won 31-21.
(Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP). Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey runs the ball against the New Orleans Saints during an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.
(AP Photo/Butch Dill). Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks on the field after an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. The Saints won 31-21.
(AP Photo/Bill Feig). Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is upended by New Orleans Saints cornerback P.J. Williams (26) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.
(AP Photo/Bill Feig). Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) carries under pressure from New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson (52) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.
By BRETT MARTEL AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Saints quarterback Drew Brees isn't ready to ask rookie running back Alvin Kamara to stop trying to hurdle defenders.
He has but one request.
"Please land on your feet and not your head," Brees said.
Kamara landed head-first when he tried to soar over a Carolina Panthers tackler on Sunday - but only after a game-sealing 22-yard gain on a third-and-10 play in the final minutes. He wound up with a cut on his lip, which seemed like a small price to pay for his latest virtuoso performance as a runner and receiver.
He finished with 126 yards from scrimmage - 60 rushing and 66 receiving - and scored a pair of tackle-shedding touchdowns to help the Saints beat the Panthers 31-21 and take command of the NFC South Division.
With four games to play, Kamara already has had a rookie campaign like few others in NFL history. He is one of only three rookies to eclipse 600 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving, joining Pro Football Hall of Famer Charley Taylor and Billy Sims. His 11 TDs put him in range of surpassing the Saints rookie record of 13 set by George Rogers back in 1981.
"It's been fun," Kamara said of his surreal first year as a pro. "You want it to keep going. You don't want it to end."
If Kamara keeps it up, the Saints season will extend into the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Here are other key story lines emerging from New Orleans triumph over the Panthers:
BOUNCING BACK: The Saints (9-3) recovered quickly from a loss to the Rams in Los Angeles which ended New Orleans' eight-game winning streak. The Saints now hold not only a one-game lead over Carolina (8-4), but also own the head-to-head tie breaker, having also beaten the Panthers in Carolina in Week 3. Two games back of New Orleans is Atlanta (7-5), which hosts the Saints on Thursday night.
"It was obviously a significant win," Payton said. "We're playing good football. It's a young team so I think we are learning each week."
MATCHUP PROBLEMS: The Panthers entered the game with the second-ranked defense in the NFL, but now have been gashed by Drew Brees and Co. in both meetings this season. The Saints had 362 total yards in a 34-13 Week 3 victory in Carolina and finished with 400 yards against the Panthers in the rematch in the Superdome. New Orleans' big plays included Mark Ingram's 72-yard run , which set up his 3-yard TD. One of Kamara's TD runs covered 20 yards. Michael Thomas caught five passes for 70 yards, including a 32-yard reception and 10-yard TD.
"It was extremely frustrating. We couldn't stop the bleeding, couldn't stop the momentum," Panthers safety Mike Adams said. "We didn't play to our standard."
Panthers coach Ron Rivera added, "Right now they are real difficult to defend.
"You have to respect their receivers. You have to account for their tight ends," Rivera continued. Kamara "and Ingram are tremendous backs. Everything starts with the quarterback's ability. He's a heck of a triggerman."
SHORING UP: After yielding 400-plus yards in New Orleans' previous two games, the Saints' defense improved considerably despite the continued absence of standout rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who is still healing from a Week 11 ankle injury. Carolina managed only 279 total yards. The Saints stopped the Panthers on seven of 10 third-down plays and produce a pivotal drive-ending play deep in New Orleans territory in the fourth quarter when Cam Newton's pass to Devin Funchess came up a yard short on fourth-and-six.
BRIGHT SPOTS: While the Panthers lacked consistency on offense, they weren't entirely stagnant. Cam Newton found Christian McCaffrey on a swing pass for a 21-yard touchdown and hit Devin Funchess for a 24-yard TD. Newton finished 17 of 27 passing for 183 yards without an interception and also had 51 yards on scrambles, including a 32-yard run in which pursuing tacklers crashed into one another while lunging for the quarterback.
"We'll learn from this," Newton said. "We will be better prepared for Minnesota" in Week 14.
WHATEVER IT TAKES: The Saints suspected rookie third-string quarterback Taysom Hill could help on special teams, so they tested that theory.
Hill, who started at QB for BYU in 2016, wound up with two tackles on kick coverage.
"It was really fun," Hill said.
Payton said Hill's 6-foot-2, 221-pound frame and good foot speed made him a special teams candidate.
"We were looking at the inactive portion of the roster and you get over to that list and say, 'All right, who can help us in the kicking game?" Payton recalled. "He did well."