The bust-out offensive game that had eluded New Orleans against Atlanta and Tampa Bay was cornered Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the Saints' offense producing what has become the norm while posting several season highs in a 31-7 victory over Arizona.
But the bust-your-lip, fracture-your-nose, chip-your-teeth defense that the Saints had administered against their first two foes didn't have to be located. Again, it proudly displayed its wares in front of 73,057 fans, feeding off the frenzy and squeezing the Cardinals into the NFL approximation of a tap-out.
And the Saints (3-0) produced their most complete game of the young season while dispatching Arizona to remain unbeaten through the first three games for the first time since 2009.
"It's early, but we are pleased with the start," Coach Sean Payton said. "We had two close games to start and this one, we handled the second half well. It was good for us to keep our defense off the field.
"There are some things we'll look at. I'm sure, as there is every week, there will be some things you want to look at and clean up and get corrected."
Evidence of past correction was on display against the Cardinals (1-2).
!(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/New-Orleans-Saints-vs-Arizona-Cardinals/5cd85909-dfc4-44e4-a8ed-6dcb1d2a716e "saints action gallery")New Orleans' offense scored more touchdowns (four) than it had in the first two games combined (three), registered its first 30-plus point game of the season (it had produced 39 in the first two), topped the 100-yard mark in rushing for the first time, finished 3 for 5 in the red zone (it had been 1 for 7) and netted a season-high 423 yards.
Quarterback Drew Brees topped the 300-yard passing mark again (29 for 46 for 342 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception), and tight end Jimmy Graham had another standout game (nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns, his second consecutive 100-plus yard game).
And special teams got exactly what it wanted from the punt game – Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who returned four punts for touchdowns as a rookie two seasons ago, had 15 yards on two returns, Saints punter Thomas Morstead averaged 45.8 net yards on four punts and Saints returner Darren Sproles took back three returns for 53 yards.
But the defense was first among equals Sunday.
The Saints sacked Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer four times and hurried him nine times. They intercepted him twice. After allowing the Cardinals to drive 80 yards on 11 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive, New Orleans clamped down and permitted just 167 yards on Arizona's remaining 44 plays.
The Cardinals converted two of their first three third downs; they finished 5 for 13. And they punted eight times, unable to respond as the Saints finished the game with a 31-0 run.
"They got into third-and-1, third-and-2 and they surprised us passing the ball on first down," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had a sack and three hurries, along with three tackles. "We just knew we had to bow up."
The Cardinals, in fact, attempted to pass on seven of their first eight first-down plays, including five of six on their opening, touchdown drive. Palmer completed four of them for 44 yards, and the completions set up Alfonso Smith's 3-yard touchdown run.
But the Saints responded immediately with their own 80-yard drive that featured seven pass plays in eight plays. Quarterback Drew Brees completed four of six passes on the drive (he was sacked on one attempt) for 82 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown to receiver Robert Meachem, Meachem's first catch since rejoining the Saints after spending last year with the Chargers.
Neither offense gained much traction from there – the Cardinals punted four times, the Saints punted three – until Sproles returned a punt 28 yards to the Saints' 42-yard line with 5:08 left in the half.
In six plays the Saints drove 58 yards for a touchdown, the scoring play being a 16-yard pass from Brees to Graham, to take a 14-7 lead into halftime. Graham, 6 feet 7, out-jumped Cardinals safety Yeremiah Bell, who's seven inches shorter, to haul in the pass.
"It was something that we had coming out of the huddle," Graham said. "It's a look that (Brees) wants and he alerts me in the huddle.
"It's just run, jump and get it. That's just what we do and I was lucky enough to catch it."
The field goal the offense added in the third quarter, and the two touchdowns it tacked on in the fourth, were reminders of how potent the Saints can be and were marches that will help New Orleans establish the offensive groove it seeks.
"We won the first two weeks in nail-biter situations," Brees said. "We talked all week about finishing. We were successful in that regard as we outscored our opponent 14-0 in the fourth quarter."
But the late scoring was icing Sunday.
For the second consecutive week, the Saints held an opponent to less than 300 yards offense and for the second time this season produced two takeaways. The 38 points allowed through three games is the second-lowest total in franchise history, behind the 28 allowed in the first three games of 1992.
"You always want to have that hungry attitude and keep grinding," said defensive end Cam Jordan, who had two sacks, four tackles, three hurries and two tackles for loss.
Defensively, the Saints are grinding away. The evidence can be seen in the worn down opposing offenses. And Sunday, the offense began to pour on points at a more favorable rate.
It was as complete a performance as New Orleans has had this season, and contained the promise of more to come.