METAIRIE, La. – Four games into Sean Payton's return from NFL exile, the Saints look a lot more like the 13-3 team he coached two seasons ago than the 7-9 team he was banned from associating with last year.
Drew Brees, with help from familiar targets Marques Colston, Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham, is leading a quick-strike offense that has put up big numbers in consecutive lopsided victories. An aggressive defense is creating momentum-changing turnovers and getting timely stops.
The result is a 4-0 start, an early 2 1/2 game lead in the NFC South Division and an energized fan base that rocked the Superdome as it has in past playoff seasons during a 38-17 victory over previously unbeaten Miami on Monday night.
"It feels good," Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. "To me, the last couple of games, we felt that rhythm. We talk about getting into a rhythm and getting into a tempo and it's based on things working and execution. I think we're starting to feel that."
Saints appear to be playing about as well as they could have hoped as they prepare to play next Sundy in Chicago (3-1).
Just don't expect to hear Payton or his players start to congratulate themselves yet.
"We all try to be, as coaches, very critical of ourselves, just like we'd be of players," Payton said. "I don't know that there's ever any complete satisfaction. It's not like a Snickers bar, so I think you're always looking to improve."
New Orleans has not won in Chicago's Sodlier Field since Jim Haslett was a first-year Saints head coach in 2000. Under Payton, the Saints are 0-3 there, losing twice in the regular season and once in the 2006-07 NFC championship.
Taking a cue from Payton, receiver Marques Colston talked about the importance of not letting the "noise" distract the Saints from the immediate task at hand.
Such "noise" would include discussions about the Saints' high rankings in key statistical areas on both sides of the ball. The offense is fourth in net yards, averaging 491.5 yards per game. The defense is sixth yards allowed at 304.5 per game.
In scoring, the Saints are tied for seventh with 27 points per game, while in scoring defense they are fifth, allowing 13.8 points per game.
New Orleans is also one of only two remaining unbeaten teams in the NFC, along with Seattle. That brings inevitable questions about whether the Saints now consider themselves leading contenders to reach the Super Bowl. Those are questions they'd rather not answer right now.
"You just got to tune out everything outside the locker room and focus on going to play a good opponent this week," Colston said. "You've got to fight against human nature at all times, and 4-0 was obviously the start that we were looking, for but there's still a lot of football yet to be played. So it's focusing on the reason why we are sitting at 4-0 and just continuing to try to get better."
The reasons for the Saints' fast start include Brees' consistently prolific production.
That is one subject which inspires Payton to hand out more compliments than usual. Brees' ability to read defenses distinguishes him as a quarterback, Payton said. The coach pointed out that Sproles was Brees' third option on a 13-yard touchdown Monday night.
"Drew did a good job of kind of seeing how the play was being defensed and threw it wide and outside to Darren," to prevent a closing defender from getting to the ball, Payton explained. "So from a spacing standpoint, he's really good at seeing how the defense is deployed."
Colston, whose 298 yards receiving has him on pace for his seventh 1,000 yard season, said Brees keeps making the exceptional look routine.
"It's really not a surprise for us any more to see the kind of games like he had last night when he's so precise," Colston said. "You lose sight of the fact that what he does on a day-to-day basis is really extraordinary."
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