TAMPA, Fla. -- They strolled into the locker room with a few references to their 10-0 record, but the New Orleans Saints are the first to tell you they're not perfect.
They rolled through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 38-7, and instantly started pointing out their flaws.
"Let's face it, these are not the Jon Gruden-coached Tampa Bay Buccaneers that we're used to," New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey said. "No offense to Tampa. They're going to be good in time. But we know we can play better than we did."
Shockey and his teammates have been saying that for the past month or so, but it's time to back up that talk. The Saints play host to the New England Patriots on Nov. 30 in a "Monday Night Football" game at the Superdome.
You can get by the likes of St. Louis, Carolina, Atlanta and Miami when you're turning over the ball and your defense is banged up and not playing as well as it did early in the season. But you can't get by the Patriots unless you're at the top of your game.
That's why Sunday's victory over the Bucs was so encouraging. Even if it was against a 1-9 team, the Saints looked better than they have in their past few outings. They didn't turn over the ball, and aside from an impressive opening drive by the Bucs, a defense that was without three injured starters didn't give up much and took the ball away four times.
"I thought we got better today," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
The outlook gets even more positive when you factor in that the Saints have a chance to get injured defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter healthy in time for the Patriots. That trio, running back Reggie Bush and receiver Lance Moore all sat out against the Bucs.
It's likely the Saints will at least get some of those injured players back as they have eight days between games. And they have to be feeling better about their depth in the secondary after first-round draft pick Malcolm Jenkins got a start and produced an interception.
Take all of that as an indication that the Saints are heading in the right direction at the right time. No, they haven't played a perfect game yet and there might not be any such thing. But the Saints got enough things right that they didn't need a big comeback like they did against Miami and Carolina and they didn't let Tampa Bay hang with them the way Atlanta did a few weeks ago.
"Throughout the season, you want to get better," linebacker Scott Fujita said. "And I like to think we are getting better. People are going to build this up to be the biggest game in the world. We have to keep our composure, not let anything get in the way and go out and continue to get better in practice each day this week."
In other words, the fans can get caught up in the hype. The players can't afford that because they've got Bill Belichick and the best franchise of the past decade coming to town.
"Our fans are going to be tailgating for about 10 hours before that game," safety Darren Sharper said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere."
Understandable because the Saints are 10-0 for the first time in franchise history. They've also won 10 consecutive games for the first time in franchise history. This kind of winning is basically totally new to New Orleans, a city that's supported a team that's been mostly a bunch of loveable losers throughout its existence.
That's not lost on the players and they know they have to keep improving as they get ready for perhaps the biggest game this franchise has played since the Saints made a memorable return to the Superdome in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf region.
"It only makes it harder because every team we face now would love to give us that first loss," quarterback Drew Brees said. "We're building something special this year. In order to get there, we have to win games like the one coming up."
That's the next step for Brees, who got back to being a machine-like passer (he had three touchdowns and a 118.0 rating) against the Bucs after a few up-and-down games. Beating a team like the Patriots would only enhance Brees' common ranking among the league's best quarterbacks along with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
It could even be a step toward the Hall of Fame for a quarterback who has put up big numbers throughout his career, but doesn't have the long list of big wins that Manning and Brady have.
"When we take care of the football and take away negative plays, we're a very, very hard team to beat," Brees said.
More importantly, winning against New England would be a major step for the entire franchise. Remember, the Saints are in uncharted territory.
"For most of us, this is the first time we're 10-0 dating back to high school," Fujita said.
The next step -- and it's obviously a difficult one -- would be getting to 11-0.
"This is going to be a very good test for us," Sharper said. "Coach Payton is always talking about doing things you've never done before. Winning this one would be something this franchise has never done before."