NEW ORLEANS Opposing coaches may as well incinerate game film of the Saints' dreadful 0-4 start. The team in those clips ceased to exist a month ago.
Drew Brees threw for 445 yards and three touchdowns, and Mike McKenzie returned an interception 75 yards for a score as New Orleans won its fourth straight, 41-24 over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
Now all the preseason hype seems a little more justified as the Saints (4-4) have become legitimate contenders in the NFC South again, only a half-game behind division-leading Tampa Bay (5-4). This latest victory over Jacksonville (5-3) was the Saints' most impressive, given the quality of the opponent. The Saints also proved they can indeed play with the AFC, against which they were 0-5 since beating Cleveland on opening day of 2006.
Brees' 35 completions on 49 attempts without an interception were impressive enough. Reggie Bush wasn't bad, either, scoring touchdowns on a short run and a short reception. He gained 115 total yards, surpassing the 100-yard mark for the third time in four games.
Brees' other scoring passes went to Lance Moore and David Patten. Marques Colston had 10 catches for 159 yards.
Quinn Gray, starting his second game for injured David Garrard (ankle), opened well, but his performance dipped after he sprained his left ankle on a hit by Will Smith early in the second quarter. He finished 20-of-33 for 354 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted three times.
When New Orleans blew coverage on Gray's 80-yard TD pass to Reggie Willams, it was among only a few plays reminiscent of the early-season Saints, whose secondary gave up a slew of long touchdowns passes.
Another was Maurice Jones-Drew's 100-yard kickoff return that tied the game at 14 in the second quarter.
Overall, however, New Orleans' defense held up long enough, limiting Jacksonville's powerful running game to 88 yards.
McKenzie's TD turned the tide, giving New Orleans a 31-17 lead. Trailing by one touchdown early in the third quarter, Jacksonville went for it on fourth-and-4 from the New Orleans 34. Under pressure, Gray delivered a floater into the right flat. McKenzie grabbed it and was gone.
After Olindo Mare drove for a 46-yard field goal Mare also missed twice New Orleans caught Jacksonville napping, easily recovering an onside kick. Bush eventually scored from 1 yard for a 10-0 lead before seven minutes elapsed.
Gray's long pass play to Williams made it 10-7, then more defensive mistakes helped Jacksonville tie the game. McKenzie dropped an interception, then committed a 15-yard face mask penalty, setting up former Saints kicker John Carney's 30-yard field goal.
But reserve tight end Billy Miller turned a short completion into a zigzagging 57-yard gain to the Jacksonville 2, setting up Bush's second TD on a swing pass. The 17-10 lead lasted only as long as it took Jones-Drew to score on the kickoff return.
New Orleans took a 24-17 lead on Moore's 8-yard catch in the back of the end zone, capping a drive during which Brees completed all seven passes for 65 yards.
At one point, boos rained down as Mare took the field for another kick, annoying Brees, who motioned for the fans to be supportive. Mare pushed it right again.