As we approach the halfway mark of the NFL season and the beginning of November, when the division races heat up and the temperatures cool off a bit, the New Orleans Saints have to like the position they’re in.
They can’t be satisfied, of course, with nine games remaining. But they can at least feel good about what they’ve done going into Sunday’s game with the hapless St. Louis Rams.
At 5-2, they’re atop the NFC South standings by one game over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, the team they chased all last season before settling for second place in the division - which sent them on the road for a cameo appearance in the playoffs.
By Sunday afternoon, the Saints could have a 1-1/2-game lead over the Bucs and Falcons because both of those teams are on a bye.
Even though a 1-1/2-game advantage in late October doesn’t mean a lot with so much football to be played, it means a lot to the Saints.
Here’s why: in addition to playing catch-up with the Falcons at this time last season, the Saints are going into a three-game stretch in which they’ll have a chance to create separation with the Bucs and Falcons.
Think, for a minute, about that three-game stretch that will take the Saints into their bye week.
Coming off a blowout of the Indianapolis Colts, the Saints are playing with much confidence as they face the 0-6 Rams - a team that ranks last in the NFL in scoring and second-to-last in scoring defense - and 28th in total offense and 29th in total defense.
While no team can take anything for granted, the Saints should be 6-2 at the midway point of the season - a game better than they were a year ago.
But here’s where the difference comes in. After the Rams, the Saints return home for a rematch with the Bucs, who beat the Saints 26-20 two weeks ago, and then play at the Falcons before the bye.
If the Saints get through the three-game stretch unscathed, they would be 8-2 and hold no worse than a two-game edge over the Bucs and Falcons (following the Saints’ bye) with six games left.
And, regardless of what happens around the NFC, the Saints would be in position to earn a home playoff game and a first-round bye considering that four of their final six regular-season games are at home.
Yet, they know they can’t afford to get ahead of themselves.
Not this week, not next week, and certainly not the week after.
But they know what they can be if they play like they did Sunday, a team that showed more consistency in its championship season of 2009 than in 2010 when they were up and down.
“It takes a pretty strong individual to play the game and be able to play well on a consistent basis,” said Drew Brees. “It’s hard to bring that same level of emotion and focus (every week). The great teams are able to do that. We want to be one of those teams.”