NEW ORLEANS -- The Saintsdidn't just feast on turkey Thursday night. They also focused their attention on devouring Dirty Birds.
The Saints (10-1) dominated the Atlanta Falcons (4-7) in a 31-17 victory en route to a league-best 10th straight win. And only a Falcons touchdown with less than two minutes remaining made the final score appear closer than what actually happened on the field.
Atlanta produced a paltry 26 yards rushing as a team and had no answer for a Saints defense that totaled six sacks, three fumble recoveries, an interception, 13 quarterback hits and seven passes defensed.
And in a modern NFL that slants heavily in the offense's favor with weekly video-game like scores and production, the Saints effectively put the rest of the league on notice that they can also play defense.
"I always said we knew what type of defense we could be if we just approached each and every game the same way," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "We can be dangerous and I think we've shown that. The thing about this league is you've got to do it again and again and again. For us, we know we've been able to show it over these last couple of weeks consistently."
After allowing 34.3 points per game in the first three games, the Saints' defense has gotten stingier over the last eight contests, allowing 19.1 points per game.
The turnaround has been on full display in the past three weeks, as New Orleans hasn't allowed an opponent to score 20 points, a span where teams averaged 12.6 points per game against the Saints. And it was no easy feat given the opponents, which included a Falcons offensive unit that entered Thursday night ranked seventh in scoring (25.5 points per game).
"It's good news," coach Sean Payton said of the defensive improvement. "We played some good offenses. Cincinnati's a good offense. The Eagles are a good offense. I feel like we're playing a complementary game relative to time of possession, third downs, all of those things and tonight was no different."
Safety Kurt Coleman echoed Payton on the team's ability to play complementary football on defense, offense and special teams.
Coleman added that the Saints' ability to score on offense ultimately places a lot of pressure on the opponent, and that opens the door for the defense to pin back their ears and get after the quarterback.
"On defense, we know all we got to do is get stops," Coleman said. "We get a couple of turnovers and we know we're getting so much pressure on that other side of the ball, the other team that they have to score, because if not, they're just playing catch up the whole game. I mean, this is a complete team in how we're doing things ... This is how football is supposed to be played. This is team football at its finest."
The defense also has vastly improved in yardage allowed per game and third-down percentage when comparing the first three games to the last eight.
After allowing 421 yards per game and opponents to convert on 44.4 percent of third-down attempts in the former category, the Saints have clamped down to allow 335.6 yards per game and a 35.7 percent conversion rate on third downs in the last eight games.
New Orleans' four takeaways Thursday night marked the team's most in a game this season, and the defensive unit has seven in the last two games after totaling 10 takeaways in the first nine games. During the 10-game win streak, the Saints are plus-10 in turnover differential.
And on a holiday night when a defensive masterpiece was showcased on prime-time television, the performance proved gratifying for a Saints unit that faced doubters after a slow start to the season.
"We talk about, 'Prove them right,'" defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "At some point in time, we want to be the bullies on the block. When it comes down to that run defense, I think we're doing that.
"We ended up letting them score twice, I think. I don't know what the end score was, but I'm not happy about it. We can't let our foot off the gas at the end of that. We got to take advantage of those 50-50 balls they were throwing up, but I do love the way that we played today. I do love the four turnovers, I do love the sacks, I do love the pressures, I do love the quarterback hits. For all (intents) and purposes, shoot, we had our Thanksgiving."