Saints enter critical part of season

OAKLAND, Calif. — As much as he hated to admit it, Joe Vitt knew that Sunday evening was not the time for a wild celebration if you’re a member of the New Orleans Saints’ organization.

Sure, the Saints had just won for the fifth time in six games and extended their winning streak to three games with a 38-17 thrashing of the Oakland Raiders — their largest margin of victory this season.

With that, a long middle-of-the-night plane ride home from the West Coast was going to feel a lot shorter and smoother.

It was also nice to think about getting to the .500 mark for the first time this season at 5-5 and leaving the unsightly thoughts of a horrible 0-4 start in September completely behind.

But, as it usually does with coaches, reality set in.

Hard, cold reality in this case.

As in playing two games in five days — starting with Sunday’s key matchup with the San Francisco 49ers followed by the quick turnaround for a Nov. 29 rematch with the angry Atlanta Falcons.

Throw in another road game, a Dec. 9 meeting with the New York Giants, and it’s easy to see why the Saints are headed into the most critical part of their season.

Three games against three division leaders will decide if the Saints are out of the playoff picture for sure, or if they’ll have an opportunity to play for something over the final three weeks of the season.

In other words, the Saints haven’t arrived yet — a sentiment Vitt expressed when asked if they’re one of the teams no one wants to play right now.

“Who’s they?” he asked. “Who said that?”

When told that a lot of people are thinking the Saints are getting hot, it was easy to tell what Vitt’s focus is on.

“A lot of people,” he said. “Listen, we got our next game now, San Francisco at home. That’s the only thing we’re worried about … that’s the only thing we can control.”

At least they’re playing like they have control over their season with six games remaining.

The offense is playing well, especially with the running game picking up at least 140 yards for the third straight week and the defense is doing what it can — especially in the red zone — even though they gave up 400 yards again.

Even though Vitt didn’t care to admit it, other people are noticing — especially Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, who was intercepted twice and sacked three times by the Saints.

“We knew we had a hot team, a team that was on a roll, and a team that’s a Super Bowl contender coming to our place in front of our fans,” Palmer said. “We let (the fans) down by not playing up to our potential by getting beat by a better team today.”

But that was the banged-up Raiders, who are 3-7 with three straight losses.

Now the Saints get to see how they stack up against the best with three division leaders coming up in an important stretch that will define this crazy season — one way or the other.