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The 2017 Saints are an exhilarating, flawed work in progress

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This season has been the most fun Saints fans have had in years, and it will continue to go that way. Until it won’t.

LOS ANGELES, CA: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) looks to throw from a collapsing pocket against the Los Angeles Rams defense at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
LOS ANGELES, CA: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) looks to throw from a collapsing pocket against the Los Angeles Rams defense at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

This year’s New Orleans Saints team caught so many people off-guard. Commonly picked to finish third in the NFC South at best, they’re now on a collision course with two challengers for the division title in just as many weeks (the Carolina Panthers this Sunday, then the Atlanta Falcons on the following Thursday). Odds are good that New Orleans will host a playoff game for the first time since January 7, 2012 when they rocked an overachieving Detroit Lions squad 45-28.

But they’re in a weird spot. Losing the first two contests to go on a two-month win streak is mathematically unlikely. Doing it against a tough schedule is even stranger; right now, fourteen teams have a winning record, and out of that group the Saints have seen the second-highest degree of difficulty (.551, with the Falcons above at .557). They’ve taken on good teams and lived to take hilarious group celebration photos about it.

But I’m not sure that luck will hold out. Each of the Saints’ three losses came at the hands of title-contending teams: the 9-2 Minnesota Vikings, the 9-2 New England Patriots, and the 8-3 Los Angeles Rams. Those are the types of teams the Saints will encounter in the playoffs, and so far they haven’t been up to the task.

And now the Saints are faced with their first real speed-bump since mid-September. How will they handle the adversity of a streak-snapping loss? Sure, there’s a number of nice things to say about how the Saints played the Rams: they limited star running back Todd Gurley to 74 rushing yards on 17 carries while rookie sensation Alvin Kamara further-strengthened his case for postseason honors.

Despite starting guys they found on the street at cornerback and losing all-world left tackle Terron Armstead to another injury, the Saints finished the day with a six-point loss on the road to a very well-coached playoff team. It’s okay to find that encouraging.

But the only thing that matters is how the Saints bounce back from this. In 2013, a late-season loss to the then-St. Louis Rams put the 10-3 Saints into a spiral, losing three of their last five games and costing them homefield advantage in the playoffs. That negativity lingered, turning into a miserable divisional-round loss against the Seattle Seahawks, and setting a precedent for three straight 7-9 seasons.

The good news is this Saints team is different from those underachievers. The team’s chemistry is different; leaders like Mark Ingram and Cameron Jordan are cheering on their younger teammates on social media rather than sniping from their girlfriends’ accounts like Junior Galette enjoyed. They aren’t throwing fists in the locker room or showing up hungover for road game flights.

At least on the surface, this team is different. They’re invested in the New Orleans community and guys (like newly-signed running back Jonathan Williams) are excited to get opportunities to join them. The five-game stretch to close out the regular season will tell us everything we need to know about the Saints, and show how far they’ve come - or if they’ve really progressed at all.

If the Rams loss set a new precedent, the Saints are in trouble.

The offensive line depth was already stretched to its breaking point before Armstead’s injury, and without him it’s reduced to putting Andrus Peat out of position and inserting Senio Kelemete to the starting lineup. There’s no clear choice for the sixth lineman. The receiving corps couldn’t shake the Rams’ corners in man coverage and the lack of a pass-catching threat at tight end is starting to get highlighted. Drew Brees has missed too many throws that should be routine for pro quarterbacks.

Without Alex Okafor, they have to manufacture pressure in blitzes and unconventional defensive line arrangements. The Saints struggled to match linebackers up in coverage, especially on targets to Gurley and receivers running across the middle. The dropoff from starting cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley to backups P.J. Williams and De’Vante Harris is catastrophic. Kenny Vaccaro is a penalty magnet.

This Saints team can improve down the stretch with some favorable matchups, healthy reinforcements, and a little luck. I think they’re a year away from pushing around the other top-flight teams in the NFC, but they could continue to surprise me. I expected a meager eight wins this year and they’ve already done that.

For what it’s worth, I’m hoping they win out in big fashion. Bury the pretenders by putting Carolina back in its place and sweeping Atlanta twice in three weeks. Take care of business against the reeling New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Get back on track and hope the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, and Rams cannibalize each other to open the door to a bye week in the playoffs. Crazier things have happened.