METAIRIE - The Saints like where they are five games into the season, though they are nowhere near as dominant as they were in their Super Bowl championship season of 2009.
New Orleans is 4-1 alone atop the NFC South after rallying Sunday to beat Carolina 30-27 with a 6-yard touchdown toss from Drew Brees to Pierre Thomas in the final minute.
New Orleans’ only loss was a 42-34 setback on opening night to defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay, and that game ended with the Saints a yard away from a potential tying touchdown and 2-point conversion.
A victory Sunday at Tampa Bay (3-2) would give New Orleans a two-game cushion in the division at the end of a three-game road trip.
“You begin to develop a personality each year, and it’s a little different from year to year,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “A win like (Sunday) can do a lot in that it was hard-fought, we had to come back, and we had to be resilient. You gain confidence from that.”
Two years ago, New Orleans was 5-0 and had outscored its opponents by 99 points after five games.
This season, the Saints have trailed in the fourth quarter three times, losing to Green Bay before rallying past Houston and Carolina.
As usual, Brees and the high-powered offense rank near the top of the league in most categories. A middling defense has come up with vital stops in the fourth quarter.
“It doesn’t feel better than being 5-0, but we’ll take a four-game winning streak,” cornerback Tracy Porter said. “We got back on track after the first loss, did a great job of making the corrections and doing what we needed to do to get to this point.”
The Saints are No. 4 in the NFL in scoring (31.4 points per game), second in yards (452.0) and second in passing (336.6). Brees is second in passing yards (1,769) and tied for fourth in quarterback rating (102.3).
Even the running game, which ranked to fifth-to-last in the NFL last season, is a respectable 14th behind the trio of rookie Mark Ingram, free-agent pickup Darren Sproles and Thomas.
Trailing 27-23 when they got the ball at their 11-yard line with 7:06 left at Carolina, the Saints used all but the last 50 seconds on a 13-play touchdown drive. Brees went 8-for-9 on the possession.
“When the game’s on the line, we know we can put the ball in Drew’s hands and go score,” offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “It was pretty hostile up there at Carolina. It felt good for us to eat that clock up like we did and go down there and get seven points.”
The New Orleans defense is 16th in yards allowed (354.6) and 23rd in points allowed (25.0), giving up some huge gains. Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton connected with Steve Smith for a 54-yard touchdown, and DeAngelo Williams had a 69-yard touchdown run off an option pitch.
“We have a standard around here,” safety Roman Harper said. “We have a great offense, and we’re trying to be a great defense and a great team as a whole.”
The Saints have stiffened when it mattered.
In Week 3, Houston led 26-17 and had the ball in the fourth quarter. New Orleans then forced a three-and-out and intercepted a pass on consecutive possessions, coming back to win 40-33.
Carolina led 27-23 after back-to-back touchdowns and had the ball midway through the fourth quarter Sunday. The Saints forced a Newton incompletion on third-and-2, setting up their winning drive.
“We’re making the necessary plays at key moments of the game,” Porter said. “That’s all you can ask. The momentum is going to swing from team to team each game, and you just have to be able to weather the storm. We’ve done that the last four games.”
Last year at this point, the Saints were 3-2 and coming off a disheartening loss to Arizona and undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall. On Sunday, they beat Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft who is on pace to shatter the rookie record for passing yards.
“It feels great,” Bushrod said. “We’d love to be 5-0, but we’ll take 4-1.”
Payton said he had no issue with Carolina tight end Jeremy Shockey’s histrionics Sunday. Shockey, whom the Saints released in February, refused to shake hands with any Saints player after the game, then apologized in a tweet Monday, writing, “I hold myself accountable. It was a classless move by me. No one takes losses worse than me.” Payton said one of the things he loves about Shockey “is he’s very emotional and loves playing.”