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Surging Saints defense playing its part in 10-game win streak

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Saints' D separates them from the pack (1:15)

Darren Woodson breaks down how the Saints have improved their defense and are his front-runner to win the NFC. (1:15)

NEW ORLEANS -- Why should the New Orleans Saints' offense have all the fun?

The Saints' defense, which has been surging over the past three weeks, reached its peak in Thursday night's 31-17 victory against the rival Atlanta Falcons.

They forced four huge turnovers -- including two of them when Atlanta had gotten inside New Orleans' 3-yard line. They had a season-high six sacks. And they stopped the Falcons twice on fourth downs.

My, how far this Saints defense has come since Week 3, when they barely survived a 43-37 overtime thriller at Atlanta.

"For us, we know this team will go as far as the defense takes us," Saints defensive end Alex Okafor said. "We know what the [Saints] offense is going to provide. They're dynamic, they can put up 30 every game. So the X factor is going to be how well the defense can play. And so far we've gotten better each week this year, and I'm just proud of this group."

The Saints (10-1) have now allowed a total of just 38 points in their past three games (including a 51-14 blowout at Cincinnati in Week 10 and a 48-7 rout of Philadelphia at home in Week 11).

And with each passing week, they appear to be playing faster, more decisive and more dominant. They have been a prime example of one of coach Sean Payton's favorite mantras that he borrowed from mentor Bill Parcells -- that confidence comes from demonstrated ability.

"You can think it and you can want it and hope for it. But you have to at some point demonstrate it," Payton said -- a refrain that his players can all recite from memory by now.

But a refrain that they agree with.

"As long as we keep building off the positives and playing with great intensity and playing with confidence, I think the sky's the limit for this defense," said linebacker A.J. Klein, who said the best thing the Saints are doing is being "opportunistic" and playing complete team defense through every level.

For a little while there in September, it looked like the Saints' defense might be a liability -- as it was for so many other years past during the Payton-Drew Brees era. The Saints' only loss came in Week 1, when they couldn't stop "Fitzmagic" and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 48-40 track meet at home in the Superdome.

Then came the Week 3 win against the Falcons, when the Saints allowed Matt Ryan to throw for a career-high five TD passes while Calvin Ridley torched their No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks.

But the Saints' defense stabilized soon after that. And over the past three weeks, they've switched from stable to dominant.

"After the first game, the world was sort of against us. Everybody tried to say the sky was falling," said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had two sacks Thursday to boost his season total to eight. "I told you early on in the year, 'Look, it's gonna take us a couple games to mesh together.' And I love the way that we rallied. ...

"It was the integrity of our locker room, it was the ability to have this high level of competitiveness within our players to go ahead and fight from there. And to talk about how we've come together the last 10 weeks, I don't what to say about it because we'd rather show you."

They certainly did that on Thursday night.

Safety Marcus Williams forced the first turnover when he lunged for Ryan on a blitz and swatted the ball out of his hand on a third-and-2 play from New Orleans' 3-yard line. Then Williams himself recovered after the ball bounced around through a few players' hands.

In the second quarter, Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone forced a fumble against receiver Julio Jones after he had taken a 15-yard reception inside the Saints' 20-yard line.

Then early in the fourth quarter, Klein intercepted a pass intended for Jones in Falcons territory. And late in the fourth quarter, Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore improbably stripped the ball loose from Ridley inside the 1-yard line to prevent what would have been a 30-yard TD.

"Those turnovers were monumental ... where we had them, when we had them, you can't ask for anything else," said Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who has been one of those surging players with five sacks over his past five games, including one on Thursday.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen pointed to three things the other day that helped turn things around and get the defense back to playing at the same level it was last season.

One was a "heightened sense of urgency." Another was having a taste of success, "which breeds confidence." And the other was that, "Obviously the explosiveness of our offense allows us to go out and play with a little bit more freedom and kind of throw caution into the wind a little bit, I guess."

A fourth factor is that New Orleans has had the NFL's No. 1 run defense through most of the season, which helps to make opponents one-dimensional. The Saints are allowing just 73.2 rushing yards per game after holding Atlanta running backs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith to a total of six rushing yards on 10 carries.

Yet another factor is the improved secondary play, including the addition of Eli Apple through an October trade with the New York Giants and the resurgence of nickel cornerback P.J. Williams after he got temporarily benched during that Week 3 game at Atlanta.

"I won't say [Week 1 was] fluky because it happened. It's on our résumé.' But we knew after that game that wasn't us, that wasn't our standard," Rankins said. "And each game afterward, we came out with the mentality to prove that's an outlier, that's not who we are. And I think for the most part we've done that.

"But in this league, you've got to do it again and again and again, and do it when it counts."

Case in point -- up next for the Saints is a trip to Dallas next Thursday and one of the stiffest tests yet for that run defense against Ezekiel Elliott, who has run for more than 120 yards and a touchdown in each of his past three games.

"We all know what Dallas is gonna want to do -- hand it to Zeke as many times as they can and try to pound out a win," Rankins said. "So it's gonna be fun."