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Saints' defense strong again while Brees hits stride in New Orleans' 31-7 win over Arizona

New Orleans Saints players often wore T-shirts with the phrase, "Be Special," printed across the front during the season in which they won the Super Bowl.

Between coach Sean Payton's return from his bounty ban, his morale-boosting hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and quarterback Drew Brees' continued prowess in the passing game, the Saints are starting to have that look of a special squad again.

After a pair of narrow victories over NFC South Division rivals to open the regular season, the Saints rode their surprisingly suffocating defense and Brees' play-making to a convincing 31-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

In securing their first 3-0 start since their Super Bowl season of 2009, the Saints took particular satisfaction in their fourth-quarter dominance, a goal Payton set leading up to the game.

"We won the first two weeks in nail-biter situations," Brees said. "We talked all week about finishing. ... We were successful in that regard."

The Cardinals, who beat Detroit a week earlier, looked like a formidable foe when they marched 80 yards on the game's opening possession, capping the drive with a 3-yard run by Alfonso Smith for a 7-0 lead. After that, however, it was all Saints.

Brees was 29 of 46 for 342 yards and three touchdowns — two to tight end Jimmy Graham and one to recently reacquired receiver Robert Meachem. Brees also scrambled 7 yards for a score.

Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer wound up 18 of 35 for 187 yards. He was sacked four times and intercepted twice by the Saints' resurgent defense, which ranked last in the league last season.

"There's not a lot of positives other than the beginning of the ball game," Cardinals first-year coach Bruce Arians said. "We played very poorly."

Here are five things we know from New Orleans' victory over Arizona:

1. DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE: Ryan's defense in New Orleans has allowed only four TDs through three games while getting pressure up front and creating turnovers. The unit was encouraged after keeping Arizona scoreless on its last 10 drives, but also pleased by a three-game trend of strong play highlighted by eight sacks and four interceptions.

"We're just buying into the scheme, players are trusting players and we're playing as hard as we can," Vaccaro said after making his first career interception against Arizona. "We know we've got the talent."

2. TYRANN'S TALENT: Tryann Mathieu's stardom in college continues to translate well in the NFL. The New Orleans native fittingly made a difficult grab of a Brees overthrow for his first career interception. Mathieu's small stature and trouble staying off drugs while in college left many skeptical about his ability to make it as a pro. So far, so good.

"He has taken great strides, and we just look for him to continue to make plays," Peterson said. "We know that he is not going to let us down."

3. GRAHAM'S GROWTH: Barring injuries, Graham is likely to be a matchup problem for most teams the Saints play this season. He had nine catches for 134 yards, including touchdowns of 16 and 7 yards. Even Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals' best all-around athlete, had trouble defending Graham.

"He knows how to maneuver his body real well," Peterson said of Graham. "He did a good job boxing us out and going up and getting the ball."

Graham's numbers against Arizona were by no means extraordinary for the former college basketball player turned NFL tight end. A week earlier at Tampa Bay, Graham had 10 catches for 179 yards and touchdown.

4. DEPTH FINDER: The Cardinals will be challenged to get some younger or less experienced players up to speed. With receiver Larry Fitzgerald (hamstring) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (toe) playing hurt, the Arizona offense struggled to sustain drives. Meanwhile, Arizona's defense was down four starters by the third quarter, when Brees and Co. started to put the game away.

"We had critical injuries, and some young guys had to chip in and play," Arians said, referring to the departures of linebackers Lorenzo Alexander (right foot) and Sam Acho (left ankle), as well as safety Rashad Johnson (finger). "They didn't handle it as well as I hoped they would."

Nose tackle Dan Williams also was excused following his father's recent death in a car accident.

5. HARD YARDS: The jury is still out on New Orleans' running game. At halftime, the Saints had run the ball for minus-6 yards. When Brees scrambled for 13 yards in the fourth quarter, he was at that moment New Orleans' top rusher.

New Orleans wound up with 104 yards rushing, but much of that came from after the game was no longer in doubt.

"I'm not concerned," Payton said, explaining that the Saints' lack of running in the first half came by design because of the five-man fronts Arizona often used.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org