NFL Power Rankings: How high can surprising Saints climb?

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton noted something Monday that resonated. During his team’s five-game winning streak, they’ve won in some various ways.

“That’s been encouraging,” Payton said.

For the past few years, the Saints had just one path to win. Drew Brees had to do it all. Brees is undeniably great, but more often than not he couldn’t drag his team to wins. New Orleans has had three 7-9 seasons in a row. It was frustrating. Payton and Brees are one of the best coach-quarterback combinations in the NFL, and they hadn’t had a winning record since 2013.

This season, the Saints are probably the best team you haven’t heard enough about. Maybe they were under the radar because preseason expectations were low. Perhaps you tuned them out after an 0-2 start. It’s possible you just don’t believe their defensive surge is for real. But they’re 5-2 and if they can keep playing this way on both sides of the ball, they’re a legitimate contender in the NFC.

The Saints defense has been one of the best in the NFL for its last five games. Yes, that sentence seems strange, but it’s true. Now the caveats: The schedule hasn’t been that tough, and it’s not like the first two games didn’t happen. Against Minnesota and New England, the Saints allowed a 141.4 passer rating and nearly 400 passing yards per game. Then it totally changed in Week 3 and hasn’t stopped.

Here are the opponents, opposing quarterbacks and their passer rating against the Saints during their five-game winning streak (their bye was Week 5):

Week 3, at Carolina, Cam Newton: 43.7
Week 4, vs. Miami (in London), Jay Cutler: 71.1
Week 6, vs. Detroit, Matthew Stafford: 62.3
Week 7, at Green Bay, Brett Hundley: 39.9
Week 8, vs. Chicago, Mitch Trubisky: 46.9

Three of those games were pretty friendly for a defense. Cutler has been bad coming out of retirement, Hundley was making his first career start and Trubisky is a rookie who had completed 12 passes in his previous two games combined. Then again, Newton is a former NFL MVP and Stafford is obviously capable. Newton hadn’t posted a rating that low since Oct. 30, 2014. Stafford hasn’t had a rating of less than 80 in any other game this season.

The Saints caught some breaks on the schedule but it’s undeniable that since those first two games, they’re shutting down whoever they’re playing. This is a fairly young team, especially on defense, and the Saints’ confidence is growing.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore will start to get some defensive rookie of the year buzz. One cornerback can’t transform an entire defense, but it helps. Lattimore has played at a high level all season and has been the biggest difference in this surge. He closed out a 20-12 win with an interception with less than 1:30 left. In previous years, if the Saints’ offense scored just 20 points they had no chance. From a 17-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 21, 2013 through Week 2 of this season, the Saints were 1-19 in games in which they scored 20 or fewer points. In this five-game winning streak, they’ve won twice scoring 20 points. This is a different Saints team. It’s not just Lattimore either. Their secondary is much improved and they’re more disruptive up front, led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and his fantastic all-around season.

Yet, it’s OK if there’s skepticism. The schedule will get tougher, and the Saints defense relies on a lot of young players. Five games is significant but not enough of a sample to prove the Saints defense has completely changed. We can count on Brees. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram will keep the running game going, too. The offense will be good. New Orleans has gained the second-most yards in the NFL, trailing only the Patriots. We just don’t know yet if the defense can hang onto their gains all season.

This Saints season started with a lot of uncertainty. There were the three losing seasons in a row. Brees’ contract voids after this season, and while it’s impossible to imagine Brees playing with any other team next season, there’s no guarantee. The first two weeks of this season made it seem like the Saints would waste another season of the Payton-Brees combination. Then the Saints came alive.

Take a look around the NFC. No team is a sure thing. People have said often over the past few years that if the Saints could just put together an average defense, they could contend again. Finally, that defense has come along. The next step is finding out if that defense, and the Saints as a whole, are here to stay. (Frank Schwab)