Vargas: Saints enter telling three-game stretch

After the thrill of razor-thin victories over the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers subsided, and the satisfaction of a decisive rout of the Arizona Cardinals wore off, reality set in for the New Orleans Saints.

They’d raced off to their first 3-0 start since winning Super Bowl XLIV four seasons ago at the expense of teams who entered the fourth week of the year with the unremarkable combined record of 2-7.

The winning streak has some Saints fans thinking that a second league championship could be in the offing, but the team they root for will get a more accurate reading about what it can aspire to achieve this year in its next three games than it did in the first three.

Between Monday night and Oct. 13, the Saints will host the Miami Dolphins and visit the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots, teams that headed into the fourth week of the NFL campaign a combined 9-0.

Unfortunately for the Dolphins, it seems they’ve been offered up as an opportunity to ease the Saints into the difficult stretch. New Orleans gets the Dolphins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where Saints coach Sean Payton has not lost a game since Jan. 2, 2011.

The Saints also get the Dolphins on “Monday Night Football,” where they’re undefeated in their past eight appearances, in large part because quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for an astounding 2,467 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions in those games.

But six days later, Brees and Payton lead the Saints to a site that has proved to be a theater of nightmares for them. In their past three games against the Bears at Soldier Field, the Saints were defeated in the 2006 NFC Championship Game and then eliminated from playoff contention the following two seasons.

It should help that the game this year is in mild October and not frigid December or January, like the past three contests were, in which Brees completed just 56.6 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and five picks. But a Saints offense struggling to protect Brees and run the football will still have to deal with a Bears defense that led the league in 2012 with 44 takeaways and forced 11 turnovers to open this year with wins over Cincinnati, Minnesota and Pittsburgh before losing 40-32 at Detroit on Sunday.

From there, the last order of business before a bye week will be dropping in on Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots. Sure, the Patriots are almost a decade removed from their most recent Super Bowl victory and didn’t exactly start this season dominating any of the league’s major statistical categories after wins over the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets and the Bucs.

But at the start of Week 4, their 91-24 regular-season record since 2006 remained the best in the NFL by a mile. Foxboro Stadium has been the hardest place for visitors to win since 2008, and it is there that Brady might have the opportunity to tie Brees’ league record of 54 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.

None of this is to say the Saints aren’t equipped to triumph against Chicago, New England or both. They are. Spearheaded by a young defensive front that’s pressuring and sacking opposing quarterbacks and, as a result, forcing turnovers, New Orleans heads into Week 4 armed with a fourth-ranked defense to complement its elite quarterback.

Brees and other Saints veterans also know how to win on the road. They’re 22-11 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since 2009 and own the league’s best road record in that time.

But the Saints don’t take comfort in that piece of trivia or other rankings and statistics. Renewing their well-documented tradition of motivational ploys, Saints coaches began leaving cheese in meeting rooms in advance of the Dolphins game.

The message: Don’t eat the cheese. Stay hungry. Avoid the trap. Ignore the hype.

“We know ... our (previous) opponents’ record is not too good,” rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We know that we got some good football teams coming. But it’s OK; we know our best football is yet to come.”

The Saints will need their best football to come, or the 3-0 start that’s got some New Orleanians fantasizing about a Lombardi Gras sequel in February could swiftly give way to a bye week filled with angst.