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New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) celebrates a sack of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) during an NFL football game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

The Saints aren’t going to say it. Ask about the six-game winning streak and a player or coach will tell you that it’s now the second half of the season and everyone’s record is 0-0.

You won’t hear the words “contenders” or “playoffs” in any corner of the locker room. Coach Sean Payton even put a damper on the hype surrounding rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore by saying it’s not time to put him in the Hall of Fame.

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But ask about how good New Orleans can be if it keeps clicking on both sides of the ball as it did during Sunday’s 30-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the answers get a little more colorful.

“Would you say legendary like the X-Men?” defensive end Cam Jordan asked. “I mean, at the end of the day we could even go like — I’m not going to say Justice League-ish, but it’s cool.”

Eventually, everyone is going is going to stop mentioning the first two weeks of the season and how the franchise looked like it was imploding. But the juxtaposition between those performances and what's happened since, including Sunday's performance, remains stunning.

The defense allowed 200 total yards to what was supposed to be one of the NFL’s top offenses. That needs to be put in context, because quarterback Jameis Winston did not play in the second half with a shoulder injury, but the Bucs (2-6) only generated 88 yards in the first half despite getting an extra drive after New Orleans (6-2) returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.

At a certain point, you are what your record and stats say you are, and this defense, despite having a lot of breaks go favorably, continues to prove each week that it is a legitimate unit capable of suffocating offenses and keeping points off the board.

Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans, considered one of the best receivers in the NFL, had more penalty yards (15) than yards receiving (13). He’s just one of many star players to get shut down by this defense, Brandin Cooks and Devante Adams also belong on that list.

In the bizarro world that this season has become, there really are no legitimate worries about the defense. The most significant questions surrounding the Saints are on offense. The stats and wins have been there, outside of the third-down production, but the attack hasn’t looked as consistent as it has in previous seasons.

Sunday, the Saints continued to build on their progress from a week ago. As has been the case all season, less Drew Brees has been better for the Saints. The quarterback only threw for 263 yards on 22-of-27 passing, and a good portion of the production came after the catch. Brees went down the field when he had to but was generally fine with making the safe throw and letting his skill players go to work.

You can do that when the defense is playing well, and it doesn’t feel like 50 points are needed to win. It also helps when Alvin Kamara is on your team and makes things happen every time he touches the ball. The 33-yard screen pass that he turned into a touchdown is one of the highlights of this season. The rookie running back made a pair of players miss, then put his hand on the ground to maintain his balance on what looked like a certain tackle before making his way to the end zone.

In some ways, the play was representative of this entire season. Like Kamara, New Orleans stumbled, but they seem determined to get where they want to be and refuse to be stopped.

All that aside, the real question is how does Kamara balance like that? Like everyone else, he wishes he knew.

"I’ve always had pretty good balance," he said. "I can’t really explain it. It’s just that energy when you see that end zone; I’m trying to get in there by any means.”

The Saints don’t feel like they’re as good as they want to be. The offense is seeking more. There were too many drives that burned out quickly and plays that didn’t connect. Brees eventually found Ted Ginn, Jr., down the field for a 36-yard touchdown, but the deep pass they missed on early in the game when Ginn was open is the one they’ll dissect this week.

And the opening drive, which appeared destined to end with points, stalled out at the Buccaneers' 21-yard line, which forced New Orleans to kick a field goal. It might be a bit much to nitpick following a 20-point win, but the offense isn’t just trying to beat the Bucs. This group is seeking a standard that will win games in January.

“We hold ourselves to a higher standard. You’ve seen games where the offense ends up going and scoring every possession," offensive tackle Terron Armstead said. "That’s the standard we hold ourselves to; that’s the expectation. When we don’t have that, have an ugly series; that’s not us.”

The standard is getting closer. Special teams need to be much better, but the Saints' offense and defense are hitting their strides. This team has done this enough that everyone should be holding it to a higher standard.

It’s not about being better than 7-9 anymore. That will be accomplished soon. It’s about being better than the rest of the teams in the NFL, and looking at seeding and trying to earn home-field advantage.

In other words, it's time to start talking about the Saints like the contenders they're becoming.

The next three weeks against Buffalo, Washington and Los Angeles will tell us more about where they stack up. But at a certain point you have to begin the conversation. New Orleans is 6-2, in first place and rolling over teams. That time is now.


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