NEW ORLEANS -- With Drew Brees finding his usual rhythm, and the Saints defense showing vast improvement under new coordinator Rob Ryan, it appears that coach Sean Payton is putting together another contender.

Brees passed for three scores and scrambled for New Orleans' first touchdown rushing of the season, leading the Saints to a 31-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

The Saints quarterback was 29 of 46 for 342 yards, with two TD strikes to tight end Jimmy Graham and the other to Robert Meachem.

Brees was intercepted once by New Orleans native and former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu. That play ended a scoring threat, but only delayed the inevitable on a day when Arizona's short-handed defense was little match for the prolific passing attack of the Saints (3-0).

Arizona (1-2), whose defense was missing four starters by early in the second half, had no answer for the 6-foot-7 Graham, who caught nine passes for 134 yards, one week after catching 10 passes for 179 yards in Tampa Bay.

Meanwhile, the Saints' rejuvenated defense under Ryan produced four sacks and two interceptions of Carson Palmer.

The Saints haven't opened a season with three straight victories since 2009, when they went on to win the franchise's only Super Bowl.

Arizona had a 7-0 lead after driving 80 yards on the game's opening possession, with Alfonso Smith scoring on a 3-yard run. After that, however, New Orleans' defense, a surprising source of strength for the Saints after ranking last in the NFL in 2012, held firm. The Cardinals didn't score again.

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan sacked Palmer twice. Outside linebacker Junior Galette added another, as did rookie defensive end Glenn Foster in what was his NFL debut after missing New Orleans' first two games with an ankle injury.

The Saints responded immediately to the Cardinals' opening score, driving 80 yards in eight plays, capped by Brees' pinpoint 27-yard pass to Meachem.

New Orleans took the lead for good in the second quarter on Brees' 16-yard, back-shoulder throw to Graham, who went up high and twisted to make the grab that safety Yeremiah Bell was powerless to stop. The 14-7 lead held until halftime despite the Saints having minus-6 yards rushing to that point. Brees wound up rushing for 21 yards and was briefly the Saints' top runner in the fourth quarter.

Garret Hartley's 31-yard field goal gave New Orleans a 10-point lead before Brees' scramble made it a three-score game early in the fourth.

Palmer quickly drove Arizona into position to cut into New Orleans' lead, but rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro's first career interception thwarted that drive and started the drive that ended with Graham's second TD on a quick 7-yard pass over the middle.

The Cardinals opened the game without starting nose tackle Dan Williams, who was excused due to the death of his father in a car accident. Outside linebacker Lorenzon Alexander (foot) and safety Rashad Johnson went out in the first half, and outside linebacker Sam Acho (ankle) went down in the third quarter.

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AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org

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