Nobody wants to play the New Orleans Saints at home anymore, or anywhere else for that matter.

Forced into exile last season when Hurricane Katrina tore up their town and nearly blew their stadium down, the Saints went 3-13 while playing “home” games in New Jersey, Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio. They had sympathy on their side, but little else. Some 10 months later, all the skeptics who thought just renovating the Superdome in time for this season was too ambitious a makeover had no idea how grand a housecleaning was about to take place.

In short order, starting late last January, New Orleans hired a new coach in Sean Payton, took a flier on a free-agent quarterback coming off shoulder surgery in Drew Brees, and culled a handful of starters from the draft, including the most electrifying rookie since Marshall Faulk in multipurpose-back Reggie Bush.

What transformed the Saints even more than all the new faces, though, was the sense of purpose that unites them.

“It’s a whole different team,” Philadelphia defensive end Darren Howard marveled Sunday, and he should know.

Howard’s Eagles became the fifth team to lose to New Orleans this season when John Carney’s 31-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired for a 27-24 win. It was a fate that Howard had trouble imagining just a few days earlier.

He played the six previous seasons for the Saints, but spent much of the last one on the bench as the chip on their shoulder gradually became as heavy as a boulder. The Saints coach at the time, Jim Haslett, tried using disrespect as motivation, telling his players the NFL shortchanged the team by moving it around without considering for how difficult even the simplest tasks were for an organization that was still hurting emotionally and essentially homeless.

That ploy backfired soon enough. Recalling the chaos that engulfed last season, Howard said in an interview leading up to this game, “It was rough. It’s something you just had to deal with, and I’d never wish that on any other football team.”

Payton turned out to be an inspired choice as leader, and not just because he possesses one of the better offensive minds in the league. It didn’t hurt, of course, that he served as the running-backs coach at San Diego State when Faulk was there, and had plenty of insight on how to deploy an all-purpose threat when Bush fell into New Orleans’ lap. Or because he was the quarterbacks coach during a stint as an assistant with the New York Giants, and knows how to find Brees the time and space to maximize his talent.

But Payton’s real genius, so far, has been convincing his players that they can accomplish something more important than winning football games simply by doing their jobs well.

“I’m fired up for this city,” he said. “I’m fired up for the people who come watch us play. I couldn’t be happier.”

Neither could the Saints’ long-suffering fans, who bought up every season ticket in the Superdome and haven’t been shy about making their presence felt.

They don’t see the signs in the locker rooms that say: “Dumb players do dumb things. Smart players seldom do dumb things.” And they don’t get the chance to hear guest speakers like Avery Johnson, the hometown kid who now coaches the NBA Dallas Mavericks, give chalk talks to the players.

But they see Bush, Brees and Deuce McAllister, among other Saints, donating time and money in the community. The way the players are received reinforces Payton’s preaching that preparing to play a football game is part of helping rebuild a city.

Considering how difficult the real task is, that might be an inflated notion. But so far, it’s worked.

Just before kickoff, Payton told an offensive line slapped together to cover some injuries, “No sacks today,” and they held the Eagles without one. His defense, the unit most affected by changes that saw New Orleans turn over nearly half its roster, has been not just stout but opportunistic.

Alternating Bush and McAllister, whose recovery from knee surgery has been surprisingly swift, Payton’s offense has been productive and controlling. It kept Donovan McNabb and the Eagles’ offense watching helplessly from the sideline by consuming 81/2 minutes on the final drive to set up Carney’s field goal.

“They’re doing it,” Philadelphia’s Howard said, “with a young set of guys who don’t remember what happened in years past. … It’s hard to say anything but they’re legitimate.”

New Orleans heads into a bye week at a most opportune time. The toughest stretch of the Saints’ schedule lies ahead, with the Ravens, Bengals, Falcons (again) and Steelers on tap.

But they’re comfortably on top of the NFC South, and re-emergence of All-Pro receiver Joe Horn, who caught two touchdowns Sunday to take some of the pressure off rookie Marques Colston, is a welcome addition to an already potent offense.

Even before he arrived in New Orleans to see these new Saints for himself, McNabb was asked if he could put his finger on what had changed to make them so formidable.

“They treat every weekend like it’s their last,” he said.

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