NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees pulled himself up in the end zone after his diving touchdown scramble and held both arms high, basking in the cheers pouring forth from the rollicking Superdome crowd.
It has only been a year since the Saints were 0-3, shrouded in scandal and going nowhere. It might as well have been a lifetime ago.
Brees passed for three touchdowns to go with his scoring run and the Saints beat the Arizona Cardinals 31-7 on Sunday to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2009, when they won the Super Bowl.
“Hopefully we can just continue to get a little bit better, and gain confidence and momentum and keep the train rolling,” said Brees, who connected twice with tight end Jimmy Graham for scores and once with Robert Meachem. “I’m very happy to be 3-0, 2-0 in the (NFC South) division, 3-0 in the NFC. All those things are significant.”
Defensively, New Orleans couldn’t ask for much more. The Saints allowed a single-season record 7,042 yards a year ago. This season under new coordinator Rob Ryan, New Orleans has allowed four TDs in the first three games. The unit produced four sacks and two interceptions of Arizona’s Carson Palmer.
Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan sacked Palmer twice. Outside linebacker Junior Galette added another, as did rookie defensive end Glenn Foster.
“It was all just pressure everywhere,” said Jordan, who exchanged high-fives with fellow defensive lineman Akiem Hicks in the locker room afterward. “When you’re part of a D-line like that, I mean, it’s a party.”
First-round draft choice safety Kenny Vaccaro made his first career interception, and Keenan Lewis, acquired in free agency last offseason, had his first interception with the Saints.
Coach Sean Payton, who looks to be building another contender after returning from last season’s bounty ban, summed it up as a “really good afternoon.”
“We finished this game the way we like to,” Payton said. “I’m proud of our guys.”
Arizona (1-2) had a 7-0 lead after driving 80 yards on the game’s opening possession, with Alfonso Smith scoring on a 3-yard run. After that, the Cardinals didn’t score.
“They can rush the passer. There’s two really good pass rushers that people don’t know a lot about,” said Palmer, who was 18 of 35 for 187 yards. “Cameron Jordan is really good. He showed that today. Junior Galette is really good. They are physical guys. They stop the run. They rush the passer and are a really good combination.”
Brees was 29 of 46 for 342 yards. He was intercepted once by New Orleans native and former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu. That ended a scoring threat, but only delayed the inevitable on a day when Arizona’s short-handed defense was little match for the prolific Saints passing attack.
Arizona, whose defense was missing four starters by early in the second half, had no answer for the 6-foot-7 Graham, who caught nine passes for 134 yards, one week after catching 10 passes for 179 yards in Tampa Bay.
“We had critical injuries, and some young guys had to chip in and play,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “They didn’t handle it as well as I hoped.”
The Saints responded quickly to the Cardinals’ opening score with Brees’ pinpoint 27-yard pass to Meachem.
New Orleans took the lead in the second quarter on Brees’ 16-yard, back-shoulder throw to Graham, who went up high and twisted to make a grab that safety Yeremiah Bell was powerless to stop.
“It’s just run, jump and get it,” said Graham, a former college basketball power forward. “That’s just what we do.”
Brees’ TD scramble made it a three-score game early in the fourth.
Vaccaro’s interception thwarted the next drive and started the series that culminated with Graham’s second TD on a quick 7-yard pass over the middle.
“Today was a huge step for us,” said Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who joined New Orleans as a free agent in 2012, only to be part of the first Saints team to miss the playoffs in three seasons. “Last year, I don’t know what that was, but this year is what I definitely expected. I love being here.”
NOTES: Cardinals starting NT Dan Williams was excused for the death of his father in a car accident. OLB Lorenzo Alexander (right foot) and S Rashad Johnson went out in the first half, and OLB Sam Acho (left ankle) went down in the third quarter. … Saints WR Lance Moore left the game in the second half and the Saints did not provide an update on his condition.