NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Opposing coaches may as well incinerate game film of the Saints' dreadful 0-4 start. The team in those clips ceased to exist a month ago.
Drew Brees threw for 445 yards and three touchdowns, and Mike McKenzie returned an interception 75 yards for a score as New Orleans won its fourth straight, 41-24 over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
Now all the preseason hype seems a little more justified as the Saints (4-4) have become legitimate contenders in the NFC South again, only a half-game behind division-leading Tampa Bay (5-4). This latest victory over Jacksonville (5-3) was the Saints' most impressive, given the quality of the opponent. The Saints also proved they can indeed play with the AFC, against which they were 0-5 since beating Cleveland on opening day of the 2006 season.
"An 0-4 start is going to do one of two things to you," said Brees, who helped the Saints tie a team record with 32 first downs, 25 on pass plays. "It's either going to throw you in the tank or it's going to give you an edge. ... It's only made us stronger. It's only made us tougher mentally, and now we're in a position where we're hardened a little bit. We've been tested a little bit and we've fought through it, and now's our time to make that jump."
Brees' 35 completions on 49 attempts without an interception were impressive enough. Reggie Bush wasn't bad, either, scoring touchdowns on a short run and a short reception. He gained 115 total yards, surpassing the 100-yard mark for the third time in four games.
"I'd say the swagger is back," Brees said. "We've got a good thing going ... but by no means have we accomplished anything yet. That's something we need to realize."
The Jaguars, by contrast, need to get some players healthy and others in line behaviorally before this stretch of two losses in three games gets worse.
Quinn Gray, starting his second game for injured David Garrard (ankle), opened well, but his performance dipped after he sprained his left ankle on a hit by Will Smith early in the second quarter. He finished 20-for-33 for 354 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted three times.
"I had a couple of miscues, a couple of wrong routes, a bad throw that led to the pick that got returned to the house," said Gray, who added that his ankle sprain "obviously hurt."
"I'll be back strong for next week," he said.
Some of his teammates may not be.
Starting left tackle Khalif Barnes was benched for what coach Jack Del Rio described vaguely as a disciplinary matter. Starting right guard Chris Naeole went out with what looked worse than what was initially diagnosed as a sprained left knee. Rookie linebacker Justin Durant, who has played in six games and started twice, was left in Jacksonville after being arrested early Saturday and charged with resisting arrest without violence.
"It's time for us to regroup," running back Fred Taylor said. "I don't want to talk about what happened to the other guys who didn't make it here. We went out there and played with who we had and we just didn't get it done."
When New Orleans blew coverage on Gray's 80-yard TD pass to Reggie Williams, it was among only a few plays reminiscent of the early season Saints, whose secondary gave up several long touchdowns passes.
Another was Maurice Jones-Drew's 100-yard kickoff return that tied the game at 14 in the second quarter.
Overall, however, New Orleans' defense held up, limiting Jacksonville's powerful running game to 88 yards.
Saints coach Sean Payton was reserved after the game, seemingly making an effort to keep his players from getting too comfortable with a potential trap game at home against winless St. Louis on Sunday.
"We've been able to scrap and fight and find a way to hang tight, but we've got a long ways to go," Payton said. "We're 4-4 and we've got eight games left. That record doesn't put you anywhere -- playoffs or anything."
Bush credited Payton, both for keeping the Saints focused and upbeat when they were losing and for preventing them from getting carried away with themselves during the winning streak.
He pointed to Payton's expression: "Don't eat the cheese," in which cheese is a metaphor for whatever people outside the locker room say about the Saints after impressive wins or embarrassing losses.
"Parmesan cheese, gouda cheese, Kraft single cheese, whatever it is, any kind of cheese, people want to feed us," Bush said. "It's just staying focused and not allowing your head to get too big, because if you eat too much cheese you may get sick ... especially if you're lactose intolerant."
Olindo Mare's 46-yard field goal in the first quarter was his longest this season, but he also missed field goals of 42 and 52 yards late in the first half. He's 6-for-12 on field goals this season. ... Former Saints kicker John Carney had a 30-yard field goal for Jacksonville, but his lack of range, which prompted Payton to release him, was an issue in this game. The Jaguars decided to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the New Orleans 36, and McKenzie had his touchdown on that play.