Bill Feig
October 31, 2016

METAIRIE, La. (AP) New Orleans Saints fans have seen this act before, and previously it hasn't ended well for them.

The Saints are once again on the verge of climbing back to .500 and into the NFC playoff picture after opening the season with three straight losses.

Similar stories played out in 2007, 2012, 2014 and last season after starts of 1-3 or worse. Each time, New Orleans got back to .500 and played well enough to keep its games meaningful into December, but missed the playoffs.

Time will tell if this season will be different; coach Sean Payton and his players certainly would like to think it will be. There are some good reasons for optimism based on the way they've played in their past four games, going 3-1 with the lone loss a close, competitive game at Kansas City.

New Orleans has played better defense during that span, and on Sunday in the Superdome, the Saints found balance for their prolific passing offense from an unlikely source in a 25-20 victory against Seattle.

Reserve running back Tim Hightower had the first 100-yard rushing game by a New Orleans player this season, finishing with 102 yards on 26 carries.

Hightower, who missed the 2012 to 2014 seasons because of injuries, said his experience in resurrecting his career was helpful as he watched the Saints' resurgence after the slow start this season.

''I keep going back to those three years that I was away from football,'' Hightower said Monday. ''There was light at the end of the tunnel. We had high hopes going into the season but we didn't start off well. We got on a roll then we got knocked down. When you go through tough times you use some of those parallels.''

The Saints' defense had one of its best performances of the season against Seattle, allowing just one offensive touchdown and withstanding a final drive that ended with an incomplete pass in the end zone on the game's final play.

''At the end of the game we stood up and made plays when we had to,'' said linebacker Nate Stupar, whose second-quarter interception led to the Saints' first touchdown.

Seattle had taken an early 7-0 lead when safety Earl Thomas picked up Mark Ingram's fumble and ran 34 yards for a touchdown. It was the second critical fumble by Ingram in two weeks and came on what wound up being his final play in the game.

Ingram's benching was meant to be more temporary than it was, but lasted the whole game, coach Sean Payton said, because ''the way Tim was running, he was getting into a pretty good groove.''

The Seahawks' offense never got into a good groove against a New Orleans defense that has methodically improved from No. 31 to No. 28 in the NFL. And that was without key defensive players who could return as early as Sunday when the Saints visit struggling San Francisco. Cornerback Delvin Breaux and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the team's rookie No. 1 draft choice, both have practiced recently and Rankins is eligible to come off of injured reserve this week.

''His progress has been good,'' Payton said. ''We'll see how practice is day to day and go from there.''

The defense has allowed fewer than 400 yards in three of the last four games after allowing more than 400 in each of the first three losses.

''We struggled a little bit against the run at first, but we've really started to jell,'' Stupar said. ''We've really been playing good up front.''

With Drew Brees continuing to operate one of the perennially elite passing games in the NFL, the improved running game and defense have New Orleans making the kind of comprehensive progress they hoped to see heading into the second half of the season.

''On offense, we've had pretty good time of possession and done pretty well on third downs and that's helped us,'' Payton said of the three victories. ''Conversely, defensively, our numbers in those wins have been good. Our ability up front to hurry the quarterback or apply some pressure to the quarterback has helped as well.''

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