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New Orleans Saints have been fueled by stingy, improving defense

We have seen close approximations of this before.

Last season, when the New Orleans Saints won the first of two straight NFC South Division titles, there was a four-game stretch of stinginess in which the Packers, Bears, Buccaneers and Bills averaged 12.3 points.

Or the opening four games of 2013, when the Falcons, Bucs, Cardinals and Dolphins combined to score 13.8 points per game.

But for the nearest fit, we have to look back 12 seasons, to 2006, when the Saints went on this kind of defensive run. From Nov. 26 through Dec. 24, while posting a 4-1 record against Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas, Washington and the New York Giants, the Saints allowed 17 or fewer points in each game, an average of 12.6

After Sunday’s lockdown of Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium in a 28-14 victory, the Saints again have held five straight opponents to 17 or fewer points. Cincinnati (14), Philadelphia (7), Atlanta (17), Dallas (13) and Tampa Bay have averaged 13 points during New Orleans’ 4-1 run.

That run has been part of an 11-2 record for the Saints heading into next Monday’s game against Carolina, and is a major reason that New Orleans has won the NFC South for the second straight year, the first time in franchise history that back-to-back division titles have been won.

“It’s been important here down the stretch,” Coach Sean Payton said. “You’re hopefully improving each week, you’re hopefully making the corrections. I think that they’re playing with confidence.

“By no means is it perfect. You put the tape on, there are a lot of things that you want to clean up and correct. But I felt like, especially in the game (Sunday), they did a great job in the second half. The first half wasn’t as good third-down defense (Tampa Bay was 5 for 8), but the second half was (1 for 6). And it helped allow us to get back in the game.”

Sunday, the defense helped hold it close until the offense came around, and the Saints shut out Tampa Bay 25-0 in the second half. The four-sack, one-turnover performance aligned with what the Saints have done during the stretch.

In a 13-10 loss to Dallas, the Saints had seven sacks and forced two turnovers. Against Atlanta on Thanksgiving night, New Orleans rolled up six sacks and forced three turnovers. It was more of the same against Philadelphia (three sacks, three turnovers) and Cincinnati (four sacks, two turnovers).

During the five games, the Saints have produced 24 sacks and 11 turnovers (six interceptions, five fumble recoveries) while holding three opponents to less than 300 yards and maintaining the league’s stingiest run defense (77.6 yards allowed per game).

The Saints have gone from allowing 32 points per game in the first three (not including Tampa Bay’s fumble return for a score in the season opener), to 13 per game in the last five, and an average of 21.8, No. 11 in the league.

Linebacker Demario Davis, a free agent signee this year, played for a pair of defensive-minded head coaches as a New York Jet, in Todd Bowles and Rex Ryan.

“I was part of some pretty good defensive units when I was with Rex and with Todd Bowles,” he said. “But what we’ve been doing is pretty good, I guess.”

It has been a lot more definitive than that.

“I think just execution, what our coaches are asking us to do, we’ve got goals for the week – stop the run, be effective in the pass game, get off the field on third down, be good in the red zone, create takeaways,” Davis said. “We’ve been able to do those things and we’ve been able to have success.”

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