METAIRIE, La. (AP) — For the Saints, it's as if 2012 never happened.
After three games a year ago, they were 0-3 without coach Sean Payton and coming off an overtime home loss to Kansas City when they blew an 18-point second-half lead.
With Payton back from his one-season bounty ban, New Orleans is 3-0 after a 31-7 rout of Arizona that resembled many of the games in Payton's best seasons. New Orleans also started 3-0 under Payton tenure in 2006, when the Saints reached the NFC championship game, and 2009, when they won the Super Bowl.
Payton dismissed the comparisons Monday, saying it's the media's job to "to reference all those things." But for the Saints, the coach says "it's noise."
He pointed out that Arizona "was 4-0 last year at the start of the season and ended up firing a general manager and a head coach."
While that might sound like typical Payton, it is one of the reasons the Saints believe they are off to a fast start. They say with Payton back, the distractions of last season are long gone and the intense focus and preparation have returned.
"He brings back that leadership, that ultimate decision-making power for the team," center Brian de la Puente said. "You come in to each week knowing that we have the best plan possible. We know what and how and why we're going to do it and the reasons behind it."
To get to 4-0, the Saints will have to beat the Miami Dolphins at the Superdome next Monday night in a matchup of two unbeaten teams. They like their chances if quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham and a resurgent defense continue to play the way they did against the Cardinals.
Brees threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona, also rushing for a score. Two of the scoring tosses went to Graham, who had nine receptions for 134 yards a week after catching 10 passes for 179 yards against Tampa Bay.
The Saints defense allowed an 80-yard touchdown drive to open the game, then forced eight punts and had two interceptions on the Cardinals' next 10 possessions.
A year after allowing an NFL-record 7,042 yards, the Saints ranked fifth in total defense, fifth in pass defense and sixth in scoring defense before the Monday night contest between Denver and Oakland.
Payton's decision to replace former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan and switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme has worked wonders through three games.
"Any time you go into a situation where it's a new defensive coordinator that's installing a new defense, you always have the question of how you're prepared," said outside linebacker Parys Haralson, whom the Saints acquired in a traded with San Francisco in late August. "Everybody was pretty confident in what they had, in what we have here. This is a defense full of talented players."
The Saints still have plenty to work on, though. Payton abandoned the running game in the first half against Arizona, when New Orleans rushed four times for minus-6 yards. Brees was sacked four times, running his season total to 10.
Just as Payton played down the 3-0 start, he sounded unconcerned about either deficiency. He attributing the lack of run calls to the five-man front Arizona presented and the sacks to the Cardinals' man-to-man coverage scheme.
"Sometimes it makes you hold the ball a half a count longer," he said. "In other words, it is just a little bit different in the passing game and sometimes it can lead to a sack or two more. I think it varies on who we are playing."