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Saints' invigorated defense makes the NFC a more interesting place

Plus, a different Packers team with Brett Hundley, and exciting young QB in Houston and more of the same in Cleveland.

Detroit Lions v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The New Orleans defense has been so poor and so pitiful for so long that this Saints team was considered another sweet-and-sour bunch. Sweet — that’s the offense. Sour –- that’s the defense.

After all, the Saints have posted three consecutive non-playoff, 7-9 seasons where their defense buckled everywhere. Sean Payton shared this with me over the summer: "I just know that we’ve had our share of 48-40 games and that is something we have to change."

Games where big-play Saints offense was ruined by a fractured defense.

New Orleans began this season 0-2. The losses were to Minnesota, who scored 29, and to New England, who scored 36. The 2017 Saints defense was trending on a familiar track.

And then this defense found its spine.

It held Carolina to 13 points in the Saints’ first victory and shut out Miami after that. And though New Orleans toppled Detroit 52-38 on Sunday, the Saints defense provided the sweetness. Its influence was unmistakable.

It forced five turnovers.

It scored three touchdown returns off those turnovers, something that had never happened in a Saints game.

It gained five sacks.

It swatted, near the line of scrimmage, a ridiculous 16 Detroit passes.

Fourteen of Detroit’s 38 points came from a Lions punt return and a Lions interception return.

"We did a lot of dumb things, but fortunately our defense did a lot of good things," Payton said.

You must dig deep in Saints history to find that kind of analysis tumbling from Payton’s mouth.

It’s a rejuvenation led by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and terrorizing defensive end Cam Jordan and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. It’s a fresh mindset, a new attitude. It has the Saints chirping about a new defensive swagger.

Payton said his question entering this season was not "if" the Saints defense would be better but "how"?

His team has won three straight with a defense that has 9 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries and 16 sacks. The aggressiveness, takeaways and overall production are the "how".

The Saints have always known they can score points.

With a game at Green Bay next, they are becoming convinced their defense can be just as sweet.

Green Bay, without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, now confronts this makeover Saints defense. Rodgers’ collarbone injury and loss give the Saints another reason to believe they can elevate toward NFC elite status.

Brett Hundley in his first NFL start supplants Rodgers. The Saints defense will gleefully embrace that switch. So does the entire NFC and especially the rest of the Packers’ NFC North brethren Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago.

It was linebacker Anthony Barr who dispensed the hit, an ominous blow as Rodgers was running right and released a throw. Barr is a fourth-year player who was a Vikings 2014 first-round draft pick. I saw him in a game at Atlanta in 2015 where he wrecked the Falcons with eight tackles, a sack, two fumble recoveries and on that day looked every bit of Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor combined with Ray Lewis. He was that ferocious.

But the knock on Barr has been that he is not consistently tough enough or physical enough.

After what he did to Rodgers, to the NFC North race and to the entire NFC portrait, Barr shut that down.

It will be fascinating to see what Packers coach Mike McCarthy does with Hundley and with this offense. McCarthy and Rodgers throughout their long union have had their squabbles, their different preferences on how to attack teams offensively and on play-calling. On what the Packers offense is and how it should be orchestrated.

Now, with such a green quarterback, McCarthy will not have to deal with so much pushback. Surely McCarthy would rather have the supreme talent of Rodgers, but there is something vibrant for a coach, a creator, a leading offensive mind at the NFL level who believes in his design and prefers its implementation following his specific imprint.

McCarthy offered me a window into how he views young quarterbacks last March at the NFL owners meetings when he discussed the college read-option ones entering the NFL and how some NFL offensive gurus are hesitant to embrace them:

"I think if you start to think about quarterbacks solely from the offense they ran in college, you are starting to box yourself in. I tend to think that those types of systems enhance a good player. If anything, it shows me the variety of what he can do and gives me more ideas of what I can do with him."

McCarthy, who turns 54 on Nov. 10, has been coaching in the NFL since 1993. He has been the Packers head coach since 2006. He won Super Bowl XLV in 2011.

This is an intriguing coaching twist for him.

I expect it will invigorate him.

The fact that Houston is tied with Kansas City for second in the league in points scored (177) is a firm testament of rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson’s brilliant impact.

Consider that Houston in none of the past four seasons cracked the top 13 league wide in points scored. And that Houston ranked 28th last year and 31st in points scored four seasons ago.

Watson leads the league in touchdown passes with 15.

That’s how many the Texans had in 16 games last season.

Watson already ranks ninth in passing yards in Texans history.

That says plenty about where the Texans have been, opposite the Saints, with the Texans forever sweet on defense and sour on offense. After Watson threw for three scores in a 33-17 drubbing of Cleveland on Sunday, the Browns were quizzed again about why they passed on Watson in the 2017 draft. Their rookie quarterback who started the Browns season, DeShone Kizer, has already been benched.

With those 15 touchdown passes, Watson has led Houston to a 3-3 record. Cleveland quarterbacks have thrown 14 interceptions as the O-6 Browns are the AFC’s only winless team.

They are 0-6 for the second consecutive season.

Watson is a classy person and quarterback who ruthlessly on the field made it his business to remind the Browns that they blew it when they shunned him in the draft.

And afterward Watson talked about the text Browns coach Hue Jackson sent him on draft day telling him "to be ready." Jackson denied sending that text.

I totally believe Watson. Why would Watson lie about that? Of course, he wouldn’t.

And Jackson and all of the Browns have a harder time denying this: Thus far and very likely beyond, they did, indeed, blow it on not selecting Watson.