Just when it looked like the "Aints" of old were back and fans were ready to reach for the grocery bag masks they wore during the futile seasons in the early 1980s, the Saints started winning again.
New Orleans (3-4) has won three straight, scoring early and often in a pair of convincing road victories against Seattle and San Francisco.
"This has been a pretty steady group of guys that have been working hard and are committed to winning," Payton said Monday afternoon. "We have guys who understand how much work we have to do still and how difficult this is."
When the Saints opened 0-4, it appeared their season was all but lost, to the shock of fans who had high expectations following New Orleans' appearance in the NFC championship game a season ago.
Drew Brees had nine interceptions and only one touchdown pass through the first four games. The Saints were beaten by no less than 17 points in each of their opening three losses. In their fourth game, they statistically outperformed Carolina, only to be done in by penalties, dropped passes and two missed field goals in a 16-13 setback.
That was when Brees, with the help of improved blocking by his offensive line, started to look increasingly like the Pro Bowl pick he was last season. Against San Francisco, he threw for a season-best 336 yards and four touchdowns while completing nearly 80 percent of his passes.
In the Saints' past three games, he's thrown for 801 yards and eight touchdowns with only one interception.
Payton said there was never anything wrong with his quarterback beyond the fact he was pressing and trying to do too much while his teammates also struggled.
Most of Brees' turnovers occurred when the Saints were playing from behind and taking risks to try to get back into games, the coach said.
"I've said before that when you fall behind by 21 points and you're playing catch-up, the job description for the quarterback really changes immensely," Payton said. "You become one-dimensional and you have to take some chances that you normally wouldn't take. ... He's not afraid (when) behind like that to worry about personal statistics if it's going to take being aggressive to get back into a game."
It began with his first play against the 49ers, a 43-yard connection with David Patten on a rollout. It launched the kind of performance expected of Brees after he completed 35 of 39 passes during his last three preseason appearances.
"He's coming off a real strong preseason and I'm not surprised at all when he has one of those games because I've seen that a lot," Payton said. "He's a good decision-maker, he's accurate, and I'm glad he's our quarterback."
After hauling in two touchdowns through his first six games this season, he had three against San Francisco, one of them a leaping, twisting grab that required him to nimbly touch both feet in bounds as he crashed over the sideline.
"He's a big target and he's someone who each week we want to involve in the plan," Payton said of the 6-foot-4 seventh-round draft pick out of Hofstra. "Again, the expectation level that he has and I have for him is high."
Payton doesn't want the Saints getting ahead of themselves, however. Although they're winning again and only one game behind Carolina for the NFC South lead, they remain a game below .500 and have a tough test coming up this Sunday when Jacksonville (5-2) visits the Louisiana Superdome.
"We're going to have to play better than we played this weekend," Payton said. "We're going to have to play one of our best games to beat this team."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press