“Didn’t you ever cram for an exam before? I learned two semesters of geology in three hours. We can do this. We just have to practice.” — Russell Ziskey, Stripes

And, faced with the challenge of playing the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons four days after arguably their most miserable performance of the Sean Payton era, the Saints did just that.

They stuffed a week’s worth of preparation into two days, putting in new wrinkles on offense, defense and special teams that resulted in a 31-21 victory before a two-thirds-full but fully roused Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“We knew how important this was,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “So everybody was focused.

“We’re professionals. Everybody studied and everybody did the best he could.”

To be sure, even beating your archrival probably won’t make up for losing four of your first five games. Since 1978, when the schedule expanded to 16 games, only 18 of the 229 teams which started 2-4 have made the playoffs.

But for a franchise seemingly rebuilding on the fly, it certainly refuted any notion that this was a team whose season was uncontrollably spiraling downhill.

“You don’t play the game from the outside. You play from the inside,” Lewis said. “People were counting us out, and they’re still going to count us out because we’re just 2-4.

“But we’ve got a good group of veteran leaders and a bunch of young guys who want to get better every game. When you have that, you’re going to be alright.”

There is, indeed, a different vibe to this team from last year, especially in the late stages when cracks such as reports of players being late to meetings and even fights in the lockerroom began to emerge.

It could be, as Lewis suggested, because there are so many young players (Delvin Breaux, whose NFL career consists of five games, is older than 24 of his teammates, including Mark Ingram and Kenny Vaccaro), that they don’t know any better.

“This is a good group,” Lewis said. “It’s not like last year when we’d lose and guys would start blaming each other.

“When we’ve lost, we’ve lost as a team. That’s why we stayed together.”

There was also that sense of desperation that comes with knowing that all playoff hopes would be dashed with a loss.

Maybe that’s why Cam Jordan and the rest of the defense played like their hair was on fire.

More aggression at getting to the quarterback and wrapping up on tackles resulted in five sacks and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan being on the run for much of the night as opposed to last week when the Eagles’ Sam Bradford hardly had to move.

At the same time, there was only one penalty on the defense — a harmless offsides by Hau’oli Kikaha. That’s playing with discipline.

The offense, using some hard lessons learned from three losses to Seattle when first-year Atlanta coach Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator there, patiently attacked the Falcons’ zone coverage while a makeshift offensive line allowed Drew Brees to be sacked only once.

Even taking the ball to start the game was based on research showing the importance of a fast start in Thursday night games. The Saints drove for a touchdown and kept the lead throughout.

It was a reminder that the Payton-Brees magic isn’t quite a thing of the past.

On special teams, the blocked punt formation that yielded Michael Mauti’s memorable block and touchdown was installed just this week.

Obviously, though, Zach Hocker’s brief time as the kicker is in jeopardy unless the Saints can’t find anyone better.

This weekend’s mini-break provides that opportunity, plus, Payton said Friday, the time to do some needed self-study.

“We’re not fooling ourselves,” he said. “We know what we’ve done well and what we haven’t.

“I’ve already been making mental notes of things that need to change. When we get the players back, we’ll hit the ground running working for Indianapolis, but just as importantly we’ve got to work on New Orleans.”

Still, there has to be a great measure of satisfaction at overcoming long odds on a short week.

“The time we spent on the field was mostly a mental approach,” Payton said. “Then the most important things were having the energy and doing the things that are necessary towards playing a physical game.

“I thought we handled the schedule well.”

And that’s the fact, Jack.