METAIRIE, La. — Mark Ingram II is returning to a first-place team.
Ingram was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
In his absence, the Saints lost their opener and the running game struggled even as they eked out victories against Cleveland and Atlanta.
But the running game came alive and New Orleans produced its most complete performance of the season in a 33-18 victory against the Giants on Sunday in MetLife Stadium.
“We got our swagger back,” cornerback Marshon Lattimore said.
When Ingram — a 1,000-yard rusher each of the last two seasons — greeted the team when his flight arrived in New Orleans early Monday morning, the team was all alone in first place in the NFC South.
Ingram will make his season debut when the Saints play the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football on Oct. 8 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We’re growing,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.
The Saints lost their first two games last season, then went on an eight-game win streak on their way to the NFC South title.
“Last year we went on a run, so we know what it’s like to stack those games up,” wide receiver Michael Thomas said. “We’re a little bit ahead of schedule this year, but we still have a lot of room for improvement and we’re excited for that.”
The offense struggled in the red zone in the first half, settling for four Wil Lutz field goals and a 12-7 halftime lead. The defense gave up a touchdown on the Giants’ first possession, but allowed just one more touchdown the rest of the game.
“We have a little streak going,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “I feel like we’re getting better each week and that’s what’s most important to me. I feel like we’re beginning to play more complementary football and not just on offense with run to pass, but really as a team.
“We’ve won in a lot of different ways and found ourselves in a lot of different circumstances already and it’s still early in the season. These are things that strengthen you, bring you together and begin to help you form your identity as a team.”
The Saints’ identity is always formed primarily around Brees and the offense, particularly the passing game, but it was an improved defense and solid special teams that made the difference in ending a three-year playoff drought.
The performance against the Giants was more reminiscent of last year’s team than the victory against Cleveland, in which the offense struggled, and the victory against Atlanta, in which the defense struggled.
“The identity of this team is resilience,” running back Alvin Kamara said. “We don’t lose focus, we just keep going.”
The Saints hope to keep their momentum going against the Redskins, which is their last game before their bye week. In addition to Ingram’s return, the game figures to feature Brees breaking Peyton Manning‘s NFL record for career passing yards. Brees needs just 201 yards to break the record.
That’s a modest total for Brees in any given game, but the Saints showed Sunday that they can win without Brees throwing a touchdown pass.
New Orleans won on Sunday without Brees throwing a single touchdown pass.
“It’s good to know we can win like that,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to win as many games as possible here, play for a championship so you know, winning is the biggest accomplishment and the thing that we’re here for. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what we’re doing.”
They ran the ball, passed the ball, defended the run, defended the pass and played special teams well enough to keep the winning streak going.
“I thought we played one of our better complementary games,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said. “Time of possession, turnovers, all those things kind of went in our favor, and when you do that, you are probably going to win more than you lose.”
K Wil Lutz was perfect in Sunday’s game. Officially he was 4-for-4 on field goals, but he also made two other kicks that didn’t count. All six kicks came during the second quarter, but his first kick was nullified because the snap came after the game clock expired at the end of the first quarter. So after a brief discussion and break to change ends of the field he had to kick again and he made it. Another field goal was nullified by a holding penalty on the Saints, so Lutz had to kick again and was good again from 10 yards back.
CB P.J. Williams bounced back from a poor performance against Atlanta. He made his first start of the season against the Falcons, but was benched late in the second quarter after being beaten repeatedly by Falcons rookie Calvin Ridley. But Patrick Robinson suffered a broken ankle later in that game and Williams started in Robinson’s nickel position against the Giants. He covered much better and caused a second-quarter fumble that led to a Saints field goal. “You’re always going to get a nice play to get you going, get your mind back right and not think about those plays,” Williams said, “but at the end of the day I wasn’t really thinking about that stuff. I came in knowing what I could do and just looking to have a good game, a big game for the team.”
WR Michael Thomas set an NFL record by catching 38 passes in the first three games of the regular season, but he had a season-low four against the Giants. The fewest he caught in any of the first three games was 10 against Atlanta.
LB Demario Davis had a big game in his former home stadium. Davis, who left the Jets to sign with the Saints as a free agent during the offseason, had his first two sacks with New Orleans on Sunday.
RB Alvin Kamara had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season and scored three touchdowns. Kamara put the game away with a 49-yard sprint to the end zone that gave the Saints a two-score margin late in the fourth quarter. “He’s special,” Payton said.