METAIRIE, La. (AP) -Sean Payton struggles to explain why the Saints played so poorly in so many phases of the game early in the season.
Explaining their impressive turnaround during the past month is a little easier.
``We're playing better than we had been, but that would be hard not to do,'' Payton said Monday as he reflected on a four-game winning streak that brought the Saints to 4-4 and back into contention in the NFC South.
Payton tried a number of motivational ploys before the season began in hopes of preventing his players from taking their surprising success last season for granted.
One was a mock funeral, during which a replica of his 2006 coach of the year award and other symbols of last year's success were laid to rest.
Ironically, it wasn't until linebacker Scott Fujita and some of his teammates surreptitiously excavated the grave about a month ago that the Saints suddenly began to look more like the squad that went to the NFC championship game.
They won impressively at Seattle, did enough to win at home against struggling Atlanta, dominated the 49ers in San Francisco, then returned home again last Sunday for their most impressive triumph of the streak, a 41-24 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the process, the offense has drastically reduced turnovers and sacks allowed, while the defense has increased pressure on quarterbacks and made more plays in the secondary.
Jacksonville invaded the Superdome with a 5-2 record and one of the better defenses in the NFL.
Still the Jaguars seemingly had no chance against New Orleans, which gained 538 total yards and might have scored even more than 41 points if not for a couple missed field goals and another drive that stalled with a fumble deep in Jacksonville territory.
``I did feel as if, offensively, there was confidence we were going to be able to move it every time we took the ball,'' Payton said. ``The quarterback was playing well and there was probably a lot of confidence in the huddle.''
Payton's game plan was to spread the Jaguars' defense with no-back formations, and to slow the pass rush with quick snap counts that seemed to prevent defenders from getting a good jump.
Quarterback Drew Brees executed it well and threw the ball effectively. He connected on 71 percent of his throws, completing 35 passes to nine different receivers, for 455 yards and three touchdowns.
His receivers helped, making plays after the catch. Three completions went longer than 30 yards, including one to tight end Billy Miller for 57.
``They're pretty good against the run,'' Payton said of the Jaguars. ``We went in offensively as a staff with the idea that some no-huddle, some hurry-up offense could help us with the tempo and maybe tire them some, slow them down some, and then pick and choose our spots in the running game.''
With as many as five receivers to cover, the Jaguars could not risk all-out blitzes. When they did bring pressure, New Orleans' steady offensive line, which hadn't allowed a sack in four games, handled it well.
Brees was sacked once in the second quarter and fumbled on that play, ending one of New Orleans' numerous scoring threats, but he was able to throw comfortably for most of the game.
``When you line up in an empty set, they can't bring six, seven or eight guys because they've got to cover downfield,'' Payton said. ``We got a handful of pressure. We handled it pretty well. Drew had a pretty good grasp of where it was coming from. Maybe the quick snaps caught them where they were just a little late.''
Meanwhile, the Saints' defensive line routinely pressured Jacksonville backup Quinn Gray, even with sack leader Brian Young out with a swollen left knee and Charles Grant playing limited snaps with a sore left ankle.
That gave Antwan Lake and Renaldo Wynn more chances to play, and Wynn had two sacks.
Linebacker Brian Simmons, in for injured starter Scott Shanle (hamstring), was in on five tackles.
``Guys who hadn't been called upon to play answered the bell,'' Payton said. ``We flew around on that side of the ball.''
Their reward was a day off Monday, as it has been throughout the winning streak.
If the streak goes to five this Sunday against winless St. Louis, the Saints will be tied with Tampa Bay, which is idle, for first place in the South.
After losing their first three games by 17 or more points, and after blowing a late lead in their fourth loss, it was almost unthinkable the Saints could recover this much, this fast.
At this point, a loss to the hapless Rams seems unthinkable, which is precisely what concerns Payton now.
``Even in wins, it's making sure you make the corrections and make sure the mistakes from yesterday won't hurt us in the future,'' Payton said. ``You have to convince those players they can improve. ... You're either doing that or you're descending.''

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