Saints' show of power vs. Jags proves team can win many ways

JACKSONVILLE -- Sucked into too many situations last season when seemingly inferior opponents stunned his Saints, coach Sean Payton had no interest Sunday in repeating that portion of the team's recent history.

So he reminded the group last week. He pointed toward a couple of 2010 losses to Arizona and Cleveland. Players also recalled a near-loss to a Carolina team that, like the Jaguars on Sunday, had just handed the keys to a rookie quarterback in his second start.

"I think this group has been together long enough to draw parallels from different games from the past," said wide receiver Marques Colston, dressing at his locker after a 23-10 win in Jacksonville.

Colston is right. These players, for the most part, are plenty familiar with one another. They celebrated with champagne in 2009 (a Super Bowl XLIV win) before a much more sobering conclusion in 2010 (a first-round loss to the Seahawks).

And yes, New Orleans probably did benefit Sunday because of this. A fast 14-0 start, unlike any of their first three games, proved their awareness to a "trap" game even if they later settled for three field goals without touchdowns down the stretch.

Nothing wrong with learning from history. In fact, there's nothing smarter.

But the Saints still find themselves in some interesting territory these days, worthy of the attention they seem willing to give it as they move forward. As the team tries to develop its identity, it needs to learn from history.

Not try to recreate it.

"Each team is different," Payton said Sunday, when asked about last year's Week 4 struggles against the Panthers compared to this one.

The coach then said this game against Jacksonville reminded him more of a noble Week 3 victory in 2009 when, despite not hitting on all cylinders particularly in the passing, the Saints left Buffalo with a feel-good win because other units stepped up.

It was yet another post-game comment Sunday that shed light on a theme provoked plenty by reporters and fans -- and validated plenty by players and coaches: Everything about the Saints right now centers on comparisons.

Is this as close as the Saints have been to being a balanced offense as they were in 2009? What was the difference between Week 4 this year and Week 4 last year? Is this a better team now at this point than it was in 2010?

"We're just really ironing out the identity of this team," said Colston, doing his best to quell any outside desires to pit this squad against the 2009 version.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to muster up the type of mojo that New Orleans possessed two years ago, while avoiding repeating problems that kept the team from doing just that in 2010.

The Saints seemed to accomplish this to a degree worthy of praise with the overhaul of their running game this offseason.

Last year, New Orleans couldn't generate nearly the same type of ground attack as they did during their Super Bowl run. In 2009, the Saints finished sixth in the league with 131.6 yards per game on the ground. Last year? They were 28th with 94.9 yards per game.

The Saints, though, haven't tried to recreate the exact recipe from 2009. Instead, they've created a backfield with Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas that now has the team averaging 119 yards per game.

"It's probably the best group that I've been around," Brees said. "All three guys on this team have a significant role. That adds more weight to what these guys do."

Yes, Brees remembers that he played on a Chargers squad with LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Sproles. But Tomlinson handled the bulk of the carries on that team, which caused Brees to explain that New Orleans' unit is a unique, well-rounded group that provides greater versatility.

Case in point: The Saints rushed for a season-high 177 yards Sunday. Sproles had 75 yards. Ingram had 55. Thomas had 36. All contributed.

"For us to get that many rushing yards, and to throw the ball the way we did (Brees finished 31 of 44 with 351 yards), I'm very happy," tackle Jermon Bushrod said. "But we left a lot of points out there."

And that's OK. It's OK because the Saints took a very legitimate step Sunday, even during a boring game, toward developing the identity that will define this group. And what exactly might that identity be shaping up to be?

"You know what, at the end of the day, when it was our turn to go up there and put points on the board, we did that," Bushrod said. "And when it was the defense's turn to go out there and hold them, they did that."

Obviously, the Saints will establish themselves in a much more defined way as the rest of the season plays out. But based on the first four games, this group looks capable of many types of wins: Coming from behind. Starting fast. Throwing when necessary. Running if it works.

And of course, they'll surely continue to attack with a risk-taking offense, a bold coach and one of the best quarterbacks in the league. As long as Payton and Brees are around, that's not going to change. Nor should it.

But as the Saints move forward -- two years removed from a Super Bowl win and one year removed from a disappointing end to a sporadic season -- they'll also need to make sure they don't try too hard to compare this season to either of the past few.

Each team is different. Now, it's time to treat them that way.

"I think this is a good team," defensive end Will Smith said. "We have a good feel for it. You never know, and you can say that every year. But I think just the guys here, everyone is confident in everyone else's ability. Now, we'll start to build on that."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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