Saints getting ready to hit peak

With some key players returning and a favorable schedule ahead, coach Sean Payton may have the Saints poised to make another deep playoff run. AP Photo/Margaret Bowles

They are the defending Super Bowl champions. But, somehow, the New Orleans Saints seem like a forgotten team.

The national attention appears to be focused on NFC South rival Atlanta, the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears in the NFC. Have we missed something?

The Saints are 6-3. In the NFC, only the Falcons and Bears have more wins. They each have seven. In the AFC, the Jets and Patriots are the only teams with seven wins.

It’s not as though the Saints have gone the same route as so many other recent Super Bowl champions, completely falling apart and out of the playoff picture the season after winning the title. In fact, you can make a case that the Saints are poised to join the Patriots as the only team since the turn of the century to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Coming off a bye and a first nine games where they weren’t as dominant as last year, the Saints might be set up perfectly for another deep playoff run. Starting with Sunday’s home game with Seattle, the Saints have four straight games that look very winnable. They host Seattle (5-4) on Sunday and then play Dallas, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

They don’t play a team that looks all that strong until they travel to Baltimore on Dec. 19, and they do have to play Atlanta and Tampa Bay after that. But, by all rights, the Saints should have 10 wins before they get to the tough part of the schedule.

So why does it seem like no one outside New Orleans is talking about the Saints, who are on a two-game winning streak, including a victory over a Pittsburgh team that was supposed to be the class of the AFC?

Well, you can point to losses to Cleveland and Arizona. Both were ugly, and even some of the games the Saints have won were not pretty in the way that so many of last year’s victories were.

Drew Brees and the offense haven’t been nearly as dominant as they were when the Saints were winning their first 13 games last season, and the defense hasn’t been nearly as opportunistic. You could even point to the quick turnaround after the Seattle game and see the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas as a possible stumbling block.

Even though the Cowboys have struggled, they’re still talented, and they were the team that broke New Orleans’ winning streak last year. A short week can be enough to throw any team off track.

But I’m not buying into that because the Saints have been here before. Part of the reason the Saints won a championship was that coach Sean Payton and circumstances have prepared the Saints for anything.

They’re masters of dealing with what life hands them, both positive and negative. They dealt with a London trip in 2008 and have had to pack up and practice elsewhere several times through the years as they’ve evacuated ahead of approaching hurricanes.

A quick turnaround isn’t going to make a lot of difference for the Saints, and maybe it’s better that they’ve sort of been forgotten. That could clear the way for the Saints to go on a nice run.

Besides the schedule, things already are starting to fall into place. Although it’s not producing turnovers at the rate of a year ago, the defense is playing better overall than it has at any point during Payton’s tenure.

“I think we’re playing our best defense in that time frame and I think the turnovers will come with the effort and the hustle and the energy that we’re playing with,’’ Payton said. “We’re doing a good job. The first number you look at is scoring defense, and that’s the No. 1 objective and then you go from there, whether it’s passing defense, third down, red zone; those are all statistics that all are definitely improved. Like I said, as we just passed the midpoint of the season with seven games left, I think we’re getting healthier there as well.”

There’s no doubt about that. The Saints had to play much of the first half of the season without their top three cornerbacks – Jabari Greer, Randall Gay and Tracy Porter. Gay will miss the rest of the season, but Greer and Porter are healthy again and rookie Patrick Robinson has come on fast.

The defense is healthy and the offense is about to get there as well. Running back Reggie Bush is expected to make his return from a broken leg against Seattle. Running back Pierre Thomas is progressing in his recovery from an ankle injury and could be returning soon.

The Saints have been using a combination of Chris Ivory, Ladell Betts and Julius Jones in the backfield, and the results have been mixed. Having Bush and Thomas healthy could change the complexion of the entire offense.

When the Saints had their winning streak snapped and lost their final three regular-season games last year, there was talk that they had hit their peak too early. They had to regroup in their bye week in the postseason.

That might not be necessary this season. We might be getting ready to watch the Saints hit their peak down the stretch.