OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Drew Brees is once again his efficient self, the running game is rolling and the defense is back to being that fast, ball-hawking group. About all New Orleans interim coach Joe Vitt had to complain about were two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after big plays.
What a difference from that 0-4 start when the Saints had nothing to celebrate.
Brees threw three touchdown passes and Malcolm Jenkins returned an interception for another score to get the Saints back to .500 with a 38-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
‘‘We’re on our way,’’ Brees said. ‘‘Had you told us or anybody after 0-4 we'd be looking at 5-5 at some point, I think a lot of people might have looked at that and said that’s pretty unrealistic. But here we are. We stayed the course, we didn’t overreact. ... We just knew that things were going to turn for us if we just continued to do things the right way, good things were going to happen. And we did that.’’
Lance Moore caught two touchdown passes and Mark Ingram ran for a score as the Saints (5-5) won for the fifth time in six games and are in position to make a late-season playoff run despite the season-long distraction from the bounty scandal.
Getting back to even was just the first step. New Orleans’ next three games come against teams currently in first place, starting with a home game next week against the Bay Area’s other team, the San Francisco 49ers, followed by games against Atlanta and the New York Giants.
‘‘This team stuck together,’’ Vitt said. ‘‘We've got some unbelievable men in that locker room. We stuck together under adverse circumstances, didn’t point fingers, got better every week. Just like last week, this week is a byproduct of how they stuck together when they were 0-4. That’s good to see.’’
The Raiders (3-7) lost their third straight game under first-year coach Dennis Allen as their banged-up defense got picked apart by Brees’ precision passing. Oakland has allowed 135 points in those defeats — the most in a three-game span for the franchise since allowing 141 in the first three games in 1961.
Owner Mark Davis made a rare appearance in the locker room after the game and said he wasn’t happy with what he has seen the last few weeks.
‘‘I'm patient. But I want to see progress,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t want to see regression. Nobody does. And that’s why I'm unhappy today.’’
Carson Palmer threw one interception that was returned for a score and another in the end zone, the Raiders left receivers open all day and Oakland struggled to tackle in another thorough beating. The Raiders have been outscored by 56 points the past two games.
The Saints did just about everything starting with an efficient opening drive by Brees that set the tone for the game. Brees finished 20 for 27 for 219 yards, extending his own records by throwing a touchdown in his 53rd straight game and completing 20 passes for the 46th straight game.
Even New Orleans’ much-maligned defense got into the act. The Saints got the two big turnovers in the first half that got the blowout started and held Oakland to one touchdown until garbage time.
‘‘I feel better than where we were,’’ said safety Roman Harper, who had the interception in the end zone. ‘‘We’re making plays now. We’re making turnovers, we’re making big plays. We’re not allowing big plays.
Vitt’s biggest complaints were the 11 penalties for 109 yards, including a celebration call on Jenkins and Harper after an interception and a taunting penalty on Ingram after his score.
The only bright spot for the Raiders was fullback Marcel Reece, who rushed for 103 yards and added 90 yards receiving as he started at halfback in place of injured Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson.
‘‘It doesn’t make you feel good,’’ Allen said. ‘‘I know we’re better than that, and I know we can play better than that. And we'll continue to work, and we'll get better.’’
Brees broke open a close game late in the first half when he found Moore all alone in the end zone behind Michael Huff and fill-in safety Mike Mitchell for a 38-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half to make it 21-7.
Travaris Cadet then returned the second-half kickoff 75 yards and Ingram ran it in from the 27 on the next play and the rout was on. Brees and Moore connected one more time in third quarter to make it 35-10.
‘‘I just know that all of us aren’t playing well right now,’’ Oakland linebacker Philip Wheeler said. ‘‘We’re just not playing well, and we just got to get better. We've played well in spurts, we just have to play well all the time.’’Continued...