NEW ORLEANS — Saints coach Sean Payton downplays how dominant New Orleans has looked the past two months, preferring instead to tell his players to tune out the hype and focus on what they still need to fix.
“We talk about realities of today, each week, and the understanding of we’re just past the midway point of the season,” Payton said.
“The experts will be talking playoffs, Super Bowl. It’s the craziest stuff ever. … Tune it out and laugh at it, understand what it is, but there’s so much more we have to do and accomplish.”
Sure, the Saints have made mistakes during their seven-game winning streak — from fumbles to sporadic special teams gaffes — but those have been far outweighed by sensational plays across the roster by young players and veterans alike, producing a whopping 18.4-point average margin of victory.
Games routinely come down to the last possession in the NFL. Yet even when the Saints have won by as few as eight points, they’ve closed out games simply kneeling on the ball and running out the clock — seven games in a row.
When the Saints routed Buffalo 47-10 last weekend, it marked the fifth victory this season by more than two touchdowns and fourth by at least 20 points.
The Saints haven’t looked this good — or win this many games in a row — since 2011, when they went 13-3.
Yet after enduring three straight 7-9 seasons, quarterback Drew Brees sounds hesitant to make comparisons between this season and 2011, or even 2009, when the Saints also went 13-3 and won numerous games by lopsided scores en route to New Orleans’ only Super Bowl title.
“We’ve obviously weathered some storms here the last few years to get to this point. We’re not taking it for granted. We’re trying to enjoy it, but also stay in the moment, understand the opportunity ahead of us and realize it doesn’t happen all the time,” Brees said.
“If we have caught lightning in a bottle, we want to ride this as long as we can. … Let’s see how good this team can be.”
The most dramatic change in New Orleans has occurred on defense. In each of the previous three seasons, the Saints ranked no better than second-to-last defensively in the NFL.
But an overhaul of personnel during the past two years, along with the installation of Dennis Allen as defensive coordinator during the latter half of the 2015 season, is now paying considerable dividends.
With a slew of first- and second-year pros in starting or regular roles, the Saints’ defense got off to a shaky start against a couple of the NFL’s better QBs — Minnesota’s Sam Bradford and New England’s Tom Brady — but has shut down just about everyone since.
Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who passed for 281 yards in the Lions’ 52-38 loss in New Orleans, is the only quarterback since Week 2 to pass for more than 156 yards against the Saints. Detroit is also the only Saints opponent of the past seven to score more than 17 points.
New additions on defense included free-agent linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Teo, free-agent defensive end Alex Okafor and rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams. Lattimore already has two interceptions and has been routinely shutting down opponents’ top receivers.
Other regulars, including defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, and cornerback Ken Crawley, are second-year pros who’ve developed quickly into productive players.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, a 2011 first-round draft choice, and safety Kenny Vaccaro, a 2013 first-rounder, are longest-tenured defensive starters.
They also have been among the most productive; Jordan leads the club in sacks with seven and Vaccaro leads the club in interceptions with three.
“Any defense that becomes very good, extremely good and begins to feed off their past successes does so because they gain confidence and they know they can repeat it,” Payton said. “That’s been a change and that’s been something we’re going to need to continue.”
Meanwhile, a dramatically improved running game that protects leads and controls the clock has eased the burden on the 38-year-old Brees.
Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara have combined for 1,089 yards and 11 TDs rushing this season. Both also are adept at turning screen passes into sizeable gains, and Kamara also can run routes like a receiver.
The Saints hoped Kamara could provide a combination of versatility and explosiveness New Orleans has missed since trading Darren Sproles in 2014, though not necessarily in his first nine NFL games.
“He has some unique talents,” Brees said. “But I think more so than that, he has the intelligence to handle it all and a maturity beyond his years. It just gives him a certain level of poise in any situation just to be able to come through and make the play.”
Brees remains accurate as ever, completing 71.7 percent of his passes. Second-year receiver Michael Thomas is on pace for more than 100 catches.
Another key addition has been rookie offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who filled in at left tackle while Terron Armstead recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, then moved to right tackle when veteran Zach Strief went out with a knee injury.
The offensive line — which also features veteran Max Unger at center, 2015 first-round draft choice Andrus Peat at left guard and free-agent pick-up Larry Warford at right guard — look as adept at protecting Brees as blowing open holes for running backs.
“I like the track we are on. I think we’re an ascending team,” Brees said. “We’ve found a bunch of different ways to win and have a lot of guys playing well and gaining a lot of confidence.
“The big message this week was: nothing is guaranteed,” Brees said. “You have to come out and earn it each week.”