There’s a logical explanation why the streaking New Orleans Saints are atop the NFC South and part of the playoff conversation.
Because they are playing very good football after seven weeks, most notably their born-again defense which continues to distinguish itself under coordinator Dennis Allen.
That said, 10 games remain on the Saints schedule — five against division foes Atlanta (2), Tampa Bay (2) and Carolina (1) and another five against Chicago (3-4) on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and later at Buffalo (4-2), Washington (3-3), at the NFC West-leading LA Rams (5-2) and New York Jets (3-4).
Anything can happen.
Expect the unexpected.
Most importantly Saints fans need to keep things in perspective.
“I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to the horse at the quarter pole,” Saints coach Sean Payton reminded reporters Monday, cautionary words intended more for the ears of his young team than worshipful Who Dat Nation.
Nevertheless, the Saints are playing “whinnying’’ football.
They, indeed, are giving off strong playoff vibes, largely because of the way they have been playing during the franchise’s first four-game winning streak since 2013 and partly because of the way the Falcons (3-3), Panthers (4-3) and Buccaneers (2-4) are playing.
Let’s start with the defending NFC South-champion Falcons. Quarterback Matt Ryan is not playing like the reigning NFL MVP, and the Falcons are scoring 12.5 fewer points per game under rookie NFL offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian than they did last year when they squandered a 25-point lead to New England in Super Bowl LI.
The offensive firepower is there in Atlanta. But Sarkisian needs to quit being a caretaker and start acting like a coach.
In Carolina, one week the 2-0 Panthers are getting lambasted at home by 0-2 New Orleans (34-13), the next week they are beating defending Super Bowl champion New England on its home turf (33-30), and then Sunday they self-destructed at Chicago which scored twice on defensive touchdowns en route to a 17-3 win.
The Panthers haven’t been able to establish a ground game, they miss five-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and diva-like quarterback Cam Newton can’t string two good games together, leaving the burden on a good, aging, stressed out defense that desperately needs middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to stay healthy.
Finally, the Buccaneers are in a world of hurt after six games. In fact, they might be at the point of no return in their season Sunday at home against the Panthers and a week later at New Orleans.
Self-inflicted mistakes and poor third-down defense have proved costly.
“No one is coming to save us,’’ Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said after his team’s last second loss at Buffalo, 30-27. “We dug in. We’ve got to dig out.’’
Break out the shovels!
Which brings us back to the Saints.
Again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves but my gut says this dark horse will keep the blinders on and won’t spit the bit when making the turn for home.
Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.