Midseason report: New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints' 4-4 record is perfectly appropriate since their season has been filled with an equal mix of highs and lows (some of them extreme). But they're in better shape than any other .500 team in the NFL. Not only are they in sole possession of first place in the woeful NFC South, but they're also peaking after their two most impressive wins to date.

New Orleans' defense remains a bigger question mark than the offense, which ranks first in the league in offensive efficiency and yards per play, according to ESPN Stats and Information. But the arrows are pointing up for a team that looks poised to not just sneak into the playoffs but also be a legitimate threat once it gets there.

Midseason MVP: The running backs. Drew Brees is still New Orleans' best player, but the Saints' run game was even more dependable during the first half. Lately, they've leaned heavily on Mark Ingram, who ran for a career-high 172 yards in a huge Week 8 win against Green Bay and followed up with 100 yards at Carolina. But I also gave a game ball to backs Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas when they carried New Orleans to a Week 5 win over Tampa Bay while Ingram was out with a hand injury. The Saints are still a pass-first team, but the offense now has as much balance as ever in the Brees-Sean Payton era.

Other notables in this category: cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Curtis Lofton, who remained reliable even during the defense's rough start.

Biggest disappointment: The story heading into the season was that the Saints would be Super Bowl contenders because they finally had a great defense -- one that emerged last season and then added three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in a blockbuster free-agent deal. Instead, the defense was a mess during the first four weeks, getting torched at Atlanta and Dallas and collapsing in the final minute at Cleveland. To make things worse, Byrd suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice during Week 5. The Saints have managed to settle in, though, with some clutch October performances led by the return of their four-man pass rush and even some long-awaited turnovers.

Best moment: The Saints' commanding 44-23 win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 8 was their most exhilarating of the season. But for one specific moment, I'm going back to Robinson's 18-yard touchdown run in overtime in Week 5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was huge because the Saints finally won a close game and flashed their resilience while rallying from an 11-point deficit. It was the best example yet of how much Payton has learned to trust the improved run game, when he called four straight runs to finish off the game. Both factors have been keys to New Orleans' turnaround.

Worst moment: There's no shortage of candidates for this "honor," given that the Saints have blown three leads in the final two minutes. But they somehow managed to take those collapses to another level in Week 7 at Detroit, when they coughed up a 13-point lead with fewer than four minutes remaining. First, they allowed a 73-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate, then Brees threw a costly interception. It was by far the Saints' most painful loss since they had played their best game of the season for the first 56 minutes. To their credit, though, they were able to build off those positives as they went on to win the next two games.

Key to the second half: The Saints have started to flash their lofty potential, with star players such as Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham and pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette starting to get into a much-needed groove. The key word, though, is consistency. And the key statistic is turnovers. The biggest factor in the Saints' 2-4 start was their turnover ratio of minus-8 (which has since improved slightly to minus-6). Their 15 giveaways (including eight interceptions by Brees) have derailed an otherwise-potent offense. And the defense needs to continue pressuring quarterbacks into mistakes of their own, a trend that has finally emerged over the past two weeks.