- Associated Press - Monday, October 23, 2017

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - New Orleans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins couldn’t resist the temptation to remind some of the Saints’ biggest critics how short-sighted they look now.

Rankins readily concedes that his team - and particularly the defense on which he starts - struggled mightily during two lopsided losses to open this season. But he also isn’t shy about expressing how much he has enjoyed seeing the Saints turn the corner during a four-game winning streak that has lifted New Orleans from worst to first in the NFC South Division.

“After the first two games, everybody and their mamas were calling for our (defensive) coordinator’s head and completely trying to say we need to abandon everything we’ve done,” Rankins said Monday. “We have confidence in what our coordinator and our coaches lay out for us to do. … We just weren’t able to execute in those first couple games, but we found a rhythm.

“Guys are playing with confidence,” Rankins continued. “Guys are having fun. Guys are flying around.”

Now in his second NFL season, Rankins hasn’t had to endure the entire stretch of three consecutive 7-9 campaigns that were defined primarily by lousy defense and an inability to climb above .500 even once between 2014 and 2016. Still, he senses a considerably different feeling in the locker room now compared to last year.

It’s understandable. Sunday’s nine-point road triumph over the Packers was the closest victory during a streak that includes three wins by two or more touchdowns.

Even in Green Bay, New Orleans was good enough pull comfortably ahead late after a sloppy first quarter in which the Saints gave up a long scoring run and turned the ball over twice on Drew Brees’ interceptions.

Rankins said he and running back Mark Ingram discussed the Saints’ poise during the flight home Sunday night.

“We had some tough times as far as turnovers on offense, allowing them to run the ball the way we did, but nobody batted an eye. Nobody started pointing fingers. Nobody panicked,” Rankins said. “We were able to execute more than they were at the end, and I think that’s a big difference from last year. Especially with the start we had this year, that can tend to divide a team, but it didn’t. We’re still a very close-knit group.”

Added Ingram, “Everybody’s confident in their teammates. … You just stay with that belief that no matter what happens throughout the game, that we’re going to get this done and I think that’s what we have as a team right now.”

As this Sunday’s home game against Chicago approaches, there seems to be little doubt that the 2017 Saints are a substantially improved product, particularly in the running game and on defense.

After allowing no fewer than 470 yards in its first two games, New Orleans‘ defense has allowed no more than 347 yards in its past four, and less than 300 yards three times. Meanwhile, the Saints have rushed for 149 or more yards in three of their victories, with Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara leading the way. That has reduced pressure on Brees, who isn’t piling up passing yards at his usual pace, but has been efficient and effective, completing better than 69 percent of his passes and throwing for 11 TDs.

The question now seems to be: How will the resurgent Saints handle success? The roster is full of young players or veterans acquired through free agency who weren’t with New Orleans during its last playoff season in 2013.

“We’ve only been in first place for a day,” Ingram said. “We’ve only played one division game (a victory at Carolina), so that doesn’t even matter.”

Saints coach Sean Payton, who has been known to warn his players not to “eat the cheese,” when compliments start rolling their way, is again emphasizing that now is no time to start looking down on the competition from their perch atop the division.

“I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to the horse at the quarter pole,” Payton said. “What we’re paying attention to most is the things that we have to clean up.”

The coach listed a blocked extra point among the mistakes that bothered him during the victory at Green Bay, saying it was one of a “number of things” his team is still doing “that championship teams are not doing, and we’re working to get better in those areas.”

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