NEW ORLEANS - Mardi Gras doesn't start until early February.
It only seemed like a Carnival parade when the unbeaten New Orleans Saints returned to Louis Armstrong International Airport after their latest victory.
'That was crazy, absolutely crazy,' quarterback Drew Brees said, recalling the hundreds of fans who partied along the roadside and cheered Saints players when they returned from a 46-34 comeback victory at Miami last weekend. 'We had a little mini-French Quarter right there at the airport.'
These are heady days for the Saints (6-0), who'll try to match the best start in franchise history on Monday night when their longtime rivals, the Atlanta Falcons (4-2), visit what is certain to be an electric Louisiana Superdome.
'I can only imagine it's going to be crazy, especially going against our rival,' Saints running back Pierre Thomas said. 'Every time we play Atlanta, it's a big deal. There's going to be excitement in that dome.'
A victory would give New Orleans its best start since 1991 and a three-game lead in the division. Recent history is on the Saints' side. Atlanta has not won a game in New Orleans since 2002, with their last road win against the Saints coming in San Antonio in 2005, the year the Saints were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
This year's Saints rank first in the NFL in yards per game (427.3), third in yards rushing (154.5) and sixth in yards passing (272.8). New Orleans also leads the league in scoring (39.7 points per game).
The Saints have become synonymous with offensive firepower since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006, leading the league in offense two of the previous three seasons.
The difference this season is a big-play defense that has forced 18 turnovers and scored five touchdowns, including three on interceptions by new safety Darren Sharper, who has six interceptions overall.
'That (turnover) statistic is one area that's glaringly different for all of us. It has helped us a bunch as a team,' Payton said. 'You hear each week talk about this Saints team is scoring 39 points per game, and I think the myth initially is that the offense is scoring all those points. The reality of it is that there are turnovers involved in there. There's a lot that goes into a number like that that can get skewed. So the takeaways have been significant.'
Turnovers have been significant for Atlanta lately as well, though not in a good way. Second-year quarterback Matt Ryan was intercepted twice and had two fumbles - losing one - in the Falcons' 37-21 loss in Dallas last weekend.
Ryan has taken notice of New Orleans' improvement on defense and figures he'll be in for another challenge Monday night.
'Guys are making plays when balls are in the air and they've taken advantage of the opportunities that they've had,' Ryan said. 'The addition of Sharper is big. ... Their scheme is good. They bring a lot of pressure and do a very good job, but the biggest thing is they're making plays. It comes down to that. They're making plays at the important time in games, so we've been impressed with their defense on tape.'